Could separating ATC from the FAA help bring the U.S. up to speed with other countries’ more modern operations?


That was the question U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao with regard to President Donald Trump’s recent proposal to privatize the air traffic control (ATC) system. On June 7, Secretary Chao testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the future of the FAA.

“We have the safest air traffic control system in the world – why would we risk that by handling the whole thing over to an untested, unproven entity?” Nelson asked. His skepticism of the proposed reform was shared by many members of the committee, with a primary concern being how it would affect smaller airports.

“A lot of rural airports are covered by contract towers. They’re not FAA [operated]. We went through that drill a couple years ago and had to really get with it because some of those contract towers were being cut out simply as savings,” he said.

And according to Nelson, one of the primary reasons for delays on the FAA’s implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) – an effort to transition America’s ATC system from one using radar to one that would rely on satellites – is also a lack of money.

“We Are Still Dealing with Vacuum Tubes and Paper Strips” – Secretary Elaine Chao

United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao
United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

FAA Criticized For Slow NextGen Progress

At the beginning of the hearing, Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) admitted that while the FAA has run remarkably safe operations to date, the government has been “dinged” by outside auditors for their insufficient performance on delivering safety and efficiency upgrades, most notably NextGen.

“It is hard to ignore the many independent studies and reviews that document the flaws with the current structure,” Thune said. And one of the more vocal critics of the FAA has been Airlines for America (A4A), which represents some of the nation’s largest airlines.

In May, Captain Billy Nolen, A4A Senior Vice President of Safety, Security and Operations, wrote a letter on behalf of the organization to Thune, offering A4A’s perspective on the FAA’s progress on NextGen implementation.

“What we all agree on is that the FAA has spent $7.5 billion on NextGen over the past seven years,” the letter stated. “What we do not agree on is the presumption that the program has created $2.7 billion in benefits.”

However, the FAA still stands by those numbers. Greg Martin, FAA Assistant Administrator of Communications, says that NextGen capabilities have, in fact, already provided $2.7 billion in benefits to National Airspace System (NAS) users, including $914 million in savings to NAS operators in the form of aircraft operating cost and fuel savings. “We estimate that NextGen will deliver more than $161 billion in benefits through 2030,” Martin said.

But according to A4A, the FAA’s definition of NextGen has seemingly evolved to include programs that were in place years, sometimes decades, before the advent of NextGen. “Though some of these programs do yield important benefits, they cannot accurately be classified as NextGen and thus should not be included in the benefits calculus,” the letter states.

One such program is Wake Turbulence Recategorization (RECAT), which began in 2006. A4A claims that RECAT and a handful of other programs together account for 15 percent of the $13.2 billion in lifecycle (2010-2030) “benefits of completed improvements” being touted by the FAA.

Martin says that the FAA classifies RECAT as part of NextGen simply because it actually is part of NextGen. “It’s one of the capabilities enabled by the NextGen Separation Management portfolio,” he said. The portfolio provides controllers the tools and procedures they need to manage aircraft in a mixed environment of varying navigation equipment and wake performance capabilities.

After success at initial testing sites, the NextGen Advisory Committee recognized RECAT as a key NextGen priority and recommended its implementation at a number of sites throughout the NAS.

“Today there have been more than 11,500,000 RECAT operations at a total of 16 Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities (TRACONs) and 30 airports throughout the NAS,” Martin said.


Chao Says The Proposal To Privatize Is About More Than Just Improving Operations

According to Chao, NextGen would be better served under the proposed reform. She also said that the proposal isn’t just about improving ATC operations – it’s about addressing something unethical – an inherent conflict of interest.

“We have an air traffic control operating system that is regulating itself on safety… that is in intrinsic conflict of interest; we need to separate out the safety function from the operational function,” she said.

She also noted that separating ATC from the FAA via a private, nonprofit corporation will allow for new equipment to be procured much faster. And due to the government’s current procurement rules being so bureaucratic, by the time controllers get new equipment, it’s already become dated just because of how long it took to get it in the first place, she added.

“What would you say to those who argue that NextGen is working out fine and reform in the ATC system will actually slow down the modernization process?” Thune asked Chao.

“We respectfully disagree,” Chao answered.

“Right now the air traffic control system is still operating from vacuum tubes and also paper strips at an age when we have digital technology available,” she added.

Chao also noted that ATC reform will essentially benefit everyone, from passengers to air traffic controllers and even taxpayers.

“Passengers will benefit because these reforms will speed up the delivery of new technology that will reduce delays and congestion. Air Traffic Controllers will benefit because these reforms will ensure that they have the most up-to-date tools and technology. And taxpayers will benefit because the system will be fully financed with user fees.”

And what about the controllers themselves? Where do they stand? The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union endorsed the “Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act of 2016,” introduced by U.S. Rep. and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Schuster (R-Pa.), which intended to reform the FAA by separating ATC operations from the FAA’s regulation.

And in his May 2017 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi noted that this change must also include a stable, predictable funding stream and a robust, well-thought out transition process to ensure that the workforce is protected and ATC services are maintained without degradation.

“We cannot afford to become complacent,” Rinaldi said. “We must always strive to improve not only the system, but the support mechanisms for the system.”

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But Not Everyone Is Convinced

A lot of those who are skeptical of privatization fear that this proposal could negatively impact general aviation due to all the power being in the hands of the major airlines. But in her testimony, Chao was quick to try to alleviate that fear:

“The governance structure will comprise of 13 members and only two seats are available by airlines. The rest are going to be filled by airports, labor groups, and labor representatives. General aviation will have at least two [seats].”

One of the strongest opponents of the proposal is U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot. “If there’s a problem with our system it’s that Congress does not guarantee the FAA consistent and reliable funding to do their jobs more successfully,” she said.

“If Congress was willing to provide the FAA with funding certainty, then the FAA could plan better, speed up NextGen implementation and avoid a massive, costly and potentially dangerous reorganization of our air traffic control system by privatizing it,” Duckworth added.

She went on to laud the FAA for its successful management of the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, noting that the U.S. ATC system is also the safest. “I don’t take our air traffic controllers for granted and I will not gamble with the safety of the flying public to address funding reliability issues.”

And with most major U.S. airlines represented by A4A, it comes as no surprise that they, too, are all for privatization. However, Delta Air Lines, which dropped its A4A membership in October 2015, is opposed to the idea.

In February 2016, the Atlanta-based carrier released a study titled “The Costs of Privatizing Air Traffic Control and how it will Impact Airline Travelers.” The gist of the study is that travelers could see upwards of 20-29 percent higher costs if the U.S. moves to a new private system. The study found that after the first six years of adhering to a privatized model, Canada saw an additional 59 percent increase on ATC-related fees, and fees in the U.K. rose 30 percent.

Captain Steve Dickson, Senior Vice President of Flight Operations at Delta, voiced his concerns in an op-ed piece, citing that ironically, supporters of privatization are using Canada as a model of what they hope to achieve, despite the fact that costs have increased for travelers.

“The facts are that NextGen air traffic control was never designed to be an overnight, flip-of-the-switch panacea, but it is working,” Dickson said.

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All Signs Point Toward Reauthorization, But Privatization Is Still Up In The Air

On June 21, Schuster reintroduced legislation to privatize ATC, similar to the bill he proposed in 2016. The 21st Century AIRR Act (H.R. 2997) was approved June 27 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with a 32-25 vote and will now move to the House floor. The committee hopes the bill will pass by Sept. 30, when the FAA’s authorization expires.

Similarly, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation voted June 29 to advance FAA reauthorization legislation, but there is one key difference in the Senate bill: it does not include the privatization of air traffic control.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) together with five other aviation-related organizations, recently signed a joint statement opposing the House legislation that calls for privatization.

AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker said, “AOPA supports the Senate FAA Reauthorization legislation, which would preserve the integrity of the safest and busiest airspace in the world, allow local airports to continue to contribute to the economy in small towns across America, give pilots common sense protections, and addresses the important role airports play in emergencies.”

The possible privatization of the U.S. ATC system is something that has brought about a number of debates. And as both proponents and opponents continue to voice their concerns, there is one thing that nearly everyone has been able to agree on: our current system is in need of reform and improvement. But only time will tell how we’ll achieve that.

Cover Photo Courtesy: Bobby Sedlatschek (@Aviation_Spotter99)