[Avionics Today 02-10-2016] A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Feb. 10 outlines specific transition issues that government and industry would need to address if the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system is restructured under the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR). The House Transportation and Infrastructure committee is scheduled to hold a markup meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11 where lawmakers will consider amending and rewriting certain provisions in the bill.
An aerial view of Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, Wa. Photo: Port of Seattle image by Don Wilson.
As it stands, the AIRR Act is a six-year reauthorization of the FAA
, removing the agency's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and shifting oversight of the air traffic system to a federally chartered corporation governed by a board representing various aviation system users and the public interest, according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, who introduced the bill. The GAO identifies several barriers to a smooth transition to the type of air traffic oversight organization proposed by AIRR, including funding, asset valuation and transfers, coordination between the FAA as a safety regulator and the new corporation, as well as timing and human capital concerns. According to the report, the GAO interviewed aviation experts from organizations such as Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Mitre and others, as well as individuals that were involved in the transitions to non-government controlled Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) organizations in the U.K. and Canada.
On funding, the GAO report notes that the new ATC corporation would face major issues in moving from the current tax and general funding formula used to fund the FAA and other government agencies to a user-fee-based system. For example, determining the user fee for General Aviation (GA) flights is difficult because non-commercial GA flights often use minimal ATC services, so it is challenging to track their use and determine a fixed fee. Another key issue to be considered is how the new organization would address economic and financial risks associated with unforeseen events. The report specifically mentions how Nav Canada and NATS, the ANSPs serving Canada and the U.K., respectively, dealt with downturns in air traffic and associated decreases in revenue resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., the United Kingdom and Canada ANSPs experienced downturns in aviation traffic and associated declines in revenue. As a result, both ANSPs adjusted their funding and financing structure to mitigate the impacts of these declines. For example, the UK ANSP took several steps to mitigate the declines in revenue, which included refinancing its debt, obtaining additional funds from the government and private shareholders, and setting up a new regulatory structure that allows it to mitigate the effects of an industry downturn through automatic price increases that are triggered by reductions in air traffic. To maintain operations, the Canadian ANSP cut costs and raised its user fees, consulting with users as required," GAO states in the report.
Another major issue raised by the GAO is whether or not the federal government should seek payment from the new ATC corporation to take ownership of the transfer air traffic system assets, such as air traffic control towers, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations, software and other equipment. During a House hearing Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016 on the AIRR Act, several lawmakers raised issues with transferring air traffic control equipment, which cost $53 billion over the past two decades to implement, to a new corporation with no reimbursement.
Separating the safety and regulatory function of the FAA from its oversight of air traffic control is also more challenging than it sounds, according to GAO. Experts interviewed by GAO stated that the development and approval of flight standards and procedures requires coordination between the operations and safety divisions of the FAA. The FAA's NextGen airspace modernization program is also a primary example of coordination between the agency as a safety regulator and a separate ATC entity would be challenging.
"For example, the Metroplex initiative and work that’s involved in implementing a new Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedure requires conducting significant community outreach and completing environmental reviews. Other experts we spoke to did not think there would be a negative impact on NextGen timelines. One of these experts said that a restructure would allow the ATC entity to make better, timelier decisions about modernization improvements that would have a positive impact on NextGen over time," the GAO report states.
Overall timing and the transition phase necessary to establish the new federally chartered organization is also an issue raised by GAO in its report. Aviation officials in Canada said the transition to Nav Canada required two years just to put the organization in place legally and financially, and another two years to phase in the user-fee collection mechanism. The report estimates a transition period in the U.S., which manages an air traffic control system more than 2.5 times the size of the airspace managed by NATS in the U.K., would require 5 to 7 years.