Fresno, California Air Traffic Control Tower. Photo: NATCA.
President Donald Trump held a meeting Feb. 9 with U.S. airline and airport executives to discuss a wide range of topics, with a primary focus on an issue that has divided several segments of the flight operational community over the past two years.
Although Trump did not directly refer to the FAA’s ongoing effort to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system by name, in focus were other topics including the timing, investment and a Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure proposal by Chairman Bill Shuster to separate the FAA’s current role as the U.S. Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) into a nonprofit corporation separated from its role as the nation’s civil aviation safety regulator. Shuster has said this would help provide more funding to deploy NextGen technologies, ATC equipment and new navigation procedures more quickly.
The meeting featured member CEOs for industry trade organization Airlines for America (A4A) in addition to executives from Los Angeles World Airports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and representatives from the Airports Council International-North America.
Member CEOs included Brad Tilden, chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group; Bill Flynn, president and CEO of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, Inc.; Dave Bronczek, president and COO of FedEx Corp.; Robin Hayes, president and CEO of JetBlue Airways Corp.; Gary C. Kelly, chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines Co.; Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Continental Holdings, Inc.; and Myron Gray, president of U.S. operations at UPS.
Here is a look at seven essential factors you need to know regarding the meeting and the possibility of the FAA being reserved to a safety regulator and certification authority apart, with new management for its Air Traffic Organization (ATO) division.
- The FAA structure could change under the new administration.
In February 2016, the U.S. House Transportation Committee approved the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which was never actually signed into law. The act provides an outline of how lawmakers want to reform the structure of the FAA. AIRR is a six-year reauthorization of streamlines to the FAA’s aviation equipment and aircraft certification processes, provides additional consumer protections, addresses aviation safety issues, gives the FAA more tools for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and provides for airport infrastructure improvements across the U.S.
Under the act, a board representing commercial airline, general aviation and other segments of airspace users, as well as representatives providing public interest, would govern the federally chartered ATC corporation. The full text of the act is available here.
During the meeting between aviation executives and President Trump Thursday, airlines expressed the need for new management of the FAA’s billion-dollar effort to upgrade the air traffic system, claiming that a newly formed nonprofit corporation could get the upgrade completed faster and would provide more actionable benefits to airports and airspace users.
“We have billions of dollars’ worth of airport projects underway around the country to continue to modernize the airports,” said Southwest’s Gary Kelly. “We’ve spent billions of dollars on the air traffic control modernization but it’s not making any meaningful progress.”
Throughout the meeting, Trump referenced conversations with his personal pilot about the use of the air traffic system in the U.S. and how he believes NextGen technologies and procedures being deployed are not being done so fast enough. While he did not explicitly commit to supporting the reforms proposed in Shuster’s AIRR act, the president did express support for “big league” changes.
“We’re going to change things around,” Trump said at the end of the meeting.
- Privatization is already a part of the U.S. ATC system.
Privatization has become one of the biggest buzz words used by major media outlets and aviation industry leaders to describe the proposed overhaul of the FAA. However, supporters of the proposal to restructure the FAA have pointed out that private companies are already used as contractors by the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) to staff some U.S. Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers.
Speaking on an ATC reform panel in September 2016 at the Airlines for America (A4A) Commercial Aviation Industry Summit, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi pointed out this reality.
“This is not a new concept,” said Rinaldi. “There are 252 air traffic control towers run by three private companies. The FAA is not taking on new air traffic control towers.”
Aviation services company Robinson Aviation, for example, notes on its website that the FAA is its biggest customer and it employed 500 air traffic controllers, engineers and technicians at 97 ATC towers under the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program.
- The transition would likely take several years.
More detailed information should become available about the proposal to restructure the FAA in March, when the Trump administration is expected to release its first annual budget request. Whether that includes funding to establish a nonprofit corporation responsible for managing air traffic and air traffic modernization deployment remains to be seen. However, the funding would not theoretically become available until October 2017, and the time required to implement the new structure could be lengthier than other nations that have gone through a similar process. Nav Canada, for example, came into existence in 1996 to manage air traffic in Canadian airspace, which features 16 ATC towers, compared to 512 in the U.S.
The transition would also have to avoid causing major interruptions for ongoing air traffic operations, which grew by an estimated 6% in the U.S. in 2016, according to Boeing.
- User fees would mean a major shift in U.S. air traffic operations.
Currently, the U.S. air traffic system is funded by taxpayer dollars and tied to budget authorizations from lawmakers.
One of the biggest concerns expressed by industry advocacy groups such as the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) in opposition to the proposed reform is that the new nonprofit corporation would establish user fees for airspace operators.
During the Thursday meeting, President Trump expressed opposition to this aspect of the proposed reform. When a participant in the meeting explained the prospect of raising the existing passenger facility charge to help fund the new corporation, he was not in favor.
“The problem is, I don’t like raising fees or taxes … really, eventually, people are going to just stop flying because it’s very expensive with all the taxes,” he said.
- The U.S. aviation community is divided on the issue.
The following breakdown provides an overview of industry groups in favor of and opposed to the proposed reforms described in the AIRR act.
- Airlines for America (A4)
- National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA)
- National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)
- Delta Air Lines
Over the past two years, as lawmakers have debated the issue, Delta has remained the only major U.S. carrier to oppose the reform. After the meeting, however, Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressed optimism, noting he looks forward to “working with President Trump, Secretary Chao, Secretary Tillerson and other members of the administration on issues important to Delta.”
- The FAA has made progress in upgrading the air traffic system.
The biggest push for reform expressed by groups such as A4A is that the deployment of NextGen is over budget and is taking too long to be implemented and provide any major actionable benefits for airspace users.
Since 2012, the agency has been heavily criticized by both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for allowing certain NextGen deployment timelines to slip, as well as a lack of providing major flight operational benefits for airspace users. Between 2014 and 2016, despite budget uncertainties, the FAA did achieve completion of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) network, installed the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system for long-range aircraft surveillance (five years behind schedule), and the roll out of its Data Communications (Data Comm) program is on schedule and in use at more than 50 airports.
In an emailed statement, the FAA projected the following NextGen benefits could be derived under the current deployment schedule, noting that the projected benefits were for a time period of 2010 to 2030:
- $9.4 billion in fuel savings for airspace users
- $30.2 billion in savings on flight crew and maintenance costs
- $125 million in additional airline flights
The agency also released an updated report on the “Business Case for NextGen,” which you can view in its entirety here.
- Reform could impact the NextGen aircraft equipage process and requirements.
As part of the deployment of NextGen, the FAA is requiring airspace users who fly in Class A through E airspace to be equipped with ADS-B to DO-260B-compliant avionics.
Under the current structure of the FAA, the agency has a specific division assigned to address NextGen avionics-mandated equipage issues. By separating the ATO from the FAA and giving it responsibility for managing the deployment of NextGen, the newly proposed nonprofit corporation would theoretically be responsible for managing equipage issues as well. But nothing regarding this role has been clearly defined and cannot be until legislation is passed.
In a December 2016 letter sent to the FAA regarding progress with NextGen, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune outlined this issue.
“According to the FAA’s data, only 651 out of 7,000 commercial aircraft have been equipped with rule-compliant avionics as of August 2016. Furthermore, industry has raised concern regarding both the availability of ADS-B avionics and repair station time slots to install the avionics in time to meet the 2020 mandate,” he wrote.