ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Everything You Need to Know About FAA Reauthorization and ATC Reform

By Juliet Van Wagenen | February 5, 2016
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[Avionics Today 02-05-2016] Following House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s introduction of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act on Wednesday, Feb. 3, organizations within different segments of the aviation community have thrown support behind the reform, or struck out against it.

Air Traffic Control Tower
The aviation community is sparring over a bill to radically reform the U.S. ATC structure. Photo: Airlines for America

The act proposes a restructure of the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, in which the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) would be removed from within the FAA and form an independent, not-for-profit corporation, outside of the federal government, to serve as the future Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) for the United States. With the current federal fiscal year funding for the FAA set to expire March 31, 2016, the bill proposes a six-year reauthorization with a three-year transition period.

Those In Favor

Shuster said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 4, that his proposal is fueled by reports of ineffective management and slowed implementation of NextGen technology at the FAA, such as those revealed in a recent Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT IG) report released on Jan. 15.

“The FAA has proven it cannot monitor the air traffic control system,” said Shuster during the press conference. “Our aviation system is not efficient. Delays, congestions and inefficiencies and costs the American people about $30 billion a year. Delays in 13 of our 20 largest airports continue to increase, some flight departure markets take longer now than they did just a decade ago. We have 750 million people today travelling throughout the airspace in the United States and in less than 10 years will be up to a billion passengers flying. Under the status quo the system, I believe, is going to get worse.”

At the current speed of NextGen implementation, Shuster expressed fears that the technology could be obsolete by the time many of the technologies and procedures are fully implemented. With the ATO under a separate organization, Shuster believes that NextGen technologies, such as Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches, can be rolled out more quickly at airports across the U.S. to improve airspace throughput without expanding infrastructure as well as reducing delays, fuel burn and emissions.

Shuster admitted that Congress was “to blame” for many of the slowdowns with funding surrounding the current NextGen implementation, but pointed to creating a separate Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) as proposed in the bill as a solution that has worked for several countries, including Canada and the U.K.

“The FAA is stuck in the budgetary appropriations process,” said Shuster. “We get ATC away from the budget, which is absolutely critical to the decision makers at the independent agency to move forward, make the investments in technology, make the corrections in their structure to move this ATC forward with modern technology.”

Several organizations and airlines have thrown their weight behind the bill, both before and after its proposal, including the Airlines for America (A4A) group, which includes top grossing U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue and others.

“We are in favor of an ATC system with stable and predictable funding outside the federal budget and a system that gives stakeholders a much bigger voice in setting the priority,” Doug Parker, chairman and CEO of American Airlines and chairman of the A4A’s board of directors, told journalists during a call regarding ATC reform in December. “Separating air traffic control from the FAA would lead to much more efficient and effective airline operation because an independent ATC organization would operate with long-term funding and government certainty.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) also came out in support of the bill shortly after its release.

“In reviewing this bill, we found that it is in alignment with all of our organization’s policies, practices, and principles. We made sure that we could clearly see how this bill will protect the NAS and allow it to continue to grow,” NATCA’s executive board said in a statement released on Wednesday, Feb. 3. 

The ATC organization said it will propose changes to the proposed bill, however, which is in the beginning stages of the legislative process. NATCA’s Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio will look to propose an alternate model for ensuring a stable, predictable funding stream for the FAA, while at the same time protecting employees and ensuring the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS).

NATCA, like the airlines associated with A4A, said the organization supports the bill, but not the privatization of the ATC system, which they believe is a misrepresentation of the reform.
“Many voices in the public discussion of this issue, including the news media, will continue to use the word privatization to describe this bill. But to us, privatization has always meant a profit motive where safety is not the top priority. That definition does NOT fit this bill today. We support this bill because it does make safety the top priority,” NATCA’s board said.

Those Opposed

Notably, one of the largest U.S. carriers, Delta Air Lines, has come out against implementation of a new ATC structure, saying a major reform in the midst of implementing NextGen technologies could prove detrimental to the system. 

“Delta agrees that improvements to our current air traffic control system are needed,” said Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations at Delta, in a recent statement. “Great progress has already been made on this front through years of research and implementation of NextGen technologies and operational capabilities, and we need to focus on continuing this momentum. Any effort to separate the ATO from the FAA will create a distraction that will set back these efforts for years.” 

The airline is also objecting on the grounds that the new system is set to be funded by users of the system, and that passengers could end up paying the price. To this effect, Delta recently released a study noting that a private air traffic control organization funded through user fees could escalate costs for travelers by 20 to 29 percent.

“Proponents have claimed that privatization would lead to cost savings for consumers,” the study stated. “But no evidence has yet been produced to show that privatization would reduce costs. In fact, nations that have privatized ATC have seen operational costs increase at a much higher rate than has been seen in the U.S. under the FAA.”

While Shuster said in the Feb. 4 press conference that no new taxes would be imposed on General Aviation (GA) operators, the GA community is wary of the reform. Several GA and business aviation organizations, including the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), have made their opposition to the bill known, saying it would likely be harmful to operators outside the realms of commercial aviation.

“NBAA opposes this legislation, which has been pushed by most of the big airlines, and is modeled on foreign systems that can be — and in many cases have been — harmful to general aviation, including business aviation,” NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “NBAA believes that the public airspace belongs to the public, and should be run for the public’s interest. Putting our nation’s ATC system beyond the reach of elected officials has the potential to not only harm general aviation, but also stifle innovation and new competition.”

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