Some might have assumed that the chairman of the House
Transportation Committee was courting controversy when he said last week that
he planned to introduce legislation to have the country’s air traffic control (ATC)
system run by a not-for-profit corporation.
But it says a great deal about how
flawed and dated that system is that even in the current hotly partisan
environment in Washington, Anthony Foxx, President Obama’s secretary of
transportation, did not immediately reject the plan.
In a statement, Foxx said that while the FAA has made
“important progress” toward delivering improved ATC technology, “the system is
not perfect, and there is room for improvement.”
He even acknowledged that the proposal put forth by the
committee chairman, Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, “speaks to some of
the weaknesses of the status quo.”
“As I have long said, this country deserves a serious
conversation about the future of our transportation system, and we are willing
to have that conversation,” Foxx said.
His reaction speaks to an understanding both within the
administration and outside of it that something must be done, and soon, to
modernize and improve the nation’s ATC system, which is currently among the
most outdated air traffic control technologies used by any advanced country.
The idea of privatizing it is not new, but it could face
both constitutional and logistical challenges, while also raising questions
about air safety.
Support for Shuster’s proposal came swiftly from the major
airlines as well as from the U.S. Travel Association.
Airlines for America, the trade group representing U.S.
carriers, said it “supports adopting a commercialized, not-for-profit ATC
model, similar to those utilized by other countries, as the best way to achieve
the efficiencies customers deserve and the accountability stakeholders need,
while continuing to set the gold standard for safety around the world.”
Erik Hansen, senior director of domestic policy for U.S.
Travel, called the proposal “the first step in the right direction in improving
the current system.”
U.S. Travel, he said, “is certainly in agreement with the
principle, and the structure [Shuster] outlined is one we’d be supportive of,
but we need to see the details.”
The main argument that Shuster and proponents of
privatization make is that the federal government has proven itself incapable
of keeping up with the technology necessary to make ATC as efficient and
capable as the aviation industry needs it to be.
Although a Gen-3 satellite-based GPS has been under
development for many years, the U.S. remains locked into an outdated
radar-based system that has become a perennial political football on Capitol
Hill during budget negotiations.
In remarks made to the Washington Aero Club, Shuster said
that despite having the busiest aviation industry in the world, an industry
that in a few years will be responsible for transporting 1 billion passengers
annually, “our air traffic control system is based on the previous century’s
He added that federal efforts to modernize the system have
been “costly but ineffective” and that “American innovation in the industry
continues to be stifled by bureaucracy, and aviation funding remains subject to
political uncertainty and budget battles.
“It’s questionable whether our ATC system is capable of just
sustaining current demands; delays already cost passengers and the economy $30
billion a year,” Shuster said. “But there’s no question whether this system can
handle the growth that’s coming. It can’t.”
His proposal, to be fully outlined when the legislation is introduced to the House,
would establish a federally chartered, fully independent, not-for-profit
corporation “to operate and modernize the ATC system, free from the volatile
funding uncertainty, political meddling and bureaucratic inertia that have
plagued FAA and our ATC system in years past.”
Shuster also proposed paying for the system with a user-fee
structure, “insulated from the federal budget process and threats of related sequesters, furloughs,
agency closures and shutdowns.”
His remarks alluded to the 2013 delays and congestion at
U.S. airports caused by the government’s budget sequestration and the
subsequent furloughs of 1,500 air traffic controllers.
Like Foxx, the Democrats on the House Transportation
Committee did not dismiss the idea entirely, even as they voiced
“We must exercise extreme caution moving forward with any
major changes to our air traffic control system, and any plan to change from
the current system must undergo extensive scrutiny,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio
(D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the committee. “While I have yet to see
legislative text of the chairman’s proposal, I have a number of serious concerns
about the constitutionality, the national security implications and the
logistical challenges of separating the system. Chairman Shuster and I still
share many of the same objectives, but I have concerns over the construct of
his reform, and we are continuing discussions.”