Shutdown disruptions fodder for supporters of ATC privatization

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An air traffic controller in Juneau, Alaska.

The recent five-week partial government shutdown offered new fodder for those who support turning air traffic control (ATC) over to a nonprofit private entity. 

But questions remain about whether the shutdown, which ended, in part, due to growing chaos within the U.S. commercial aviation network, was enough of a jolt to bring the privatization proposal back within Congress' gaze.

"Whether or not it's going to push it over the finish line is difficult to say, considering we are not working in a normal Washington," said Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank that supports privatizing U.S. ATC. "But there couldn't be a clearer demonstration of why we need this."

The latest push to privatize the ATC system came to an end last February when its chief congressional backer, then-House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster, threw in the towel, defeated by opposition from general aviation interests, most congressional Democrats and also a substantial number of Republicans. 

The proposal would have spun off air traffic control management from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation, whose board of directors was to have representatives from airlines, airports, airline unions, general aviation and the Department of Transportation. Funding would have come directly from fees paid by airlines and other users of U.S. airspace. 

Shuster had modeled the proposed entity after Nav Canada, the nonprofit that operates Canada's air traffic control system. The hope shared by Shuster and other backers, including the commercial airline industry and President Trump, was to include privatization in the FAA reauthorization bill that ultimately passed without it last October. 

Airlines were among the proposal's biggest proponents, and one of their chief arguments in pushing for the measure was that it would provide a stable funding mechanism for ATC that would be shielded from the partisan bickering and politics of Washington. 

'The pressure was intense'

The 35-day shutdown surely bolstered that argument; the stalemate came to an end on Jan. 25 as the National Airspace System began to outwardly burst at the seams. That morning, a jump in call-outs by controllers at facilities in the Washington area and in Jacksonville, Fla., forced the FAA to reroute traffic, increase spacing between aircraft and implement ground holds. New York LaGuardia took the worst hit from the holds, but the system back-up ultimately reverberated down the East Coast and westward through the interconnected flight networks of U.S. airlines. 

Speaking on Jan. 29 at the Aero Club of Washington, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, renewed the union's call for a stable funding source. 

"The pressure and extra stress that this shutdown inserted into the national airspace system was intense," he said. 

Rinaldi said the shutdown disrupted air traffic control technology programs, including the implementation of the GPS-based NextGen, which is replacing radar technology. It also halted runway safety programs, equipment deployment, controller training and the FAA's Northeast Corridor Initiative, which seeks to ease airspace congestion over the Northeast. 

He said he expects the shutdown to result in a long-term increase in controller attrition and said it surely resulted in drop-outs from training programs. He also noted that controllers face the specter of another shutdown on Feb. 15 if Congress and the White House can't reach an agreement to fund the government. 

Though the association supported Shuster's privatization proposal last year, Rinaldi stopped short of directly referencing privatization during his speech. 

Others, however, have been more specific in renewing the call for a nonprofit entity to take the reins of ATC from the FAA. 

In a Jan. 14 blog, the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, drew attention to the Nav Canada controllers who were sending pizzas to their cash-short counterparts in the U.S.

The move, said the post's writer, Reason Foundation associate editor Christian Britschgi, was a nice gesture. But, he wrote, "It's also a gesture that wouldn't be necessary if the U.S. had the same air traffic control system as our northern neighbor."

Nonpartisans have also said that the shutdown could bring the issue of ATC reform back to the fore.

"To date, bills in Congress to set up a separate corporation to manage air traffic control have gone nowhere," wrote Cowen Research analysts Helane Becker, Conor Cunningham and Tyler Seidman in a Jan. 25 investors note. "This issue could be a turning point for change." 

Still, privatization advocates have steep hurdles to overcome. For one, timing isn't on their side. The FAA reauthorization bill that Trump signed in October extends for five years. In addition, the Democrats' takeover of the House last month, coupled with Shuster's departure from Congress, present major challenges. 

Notably, in an email last week, a spokesperson for the trade group Airlines for America (A4A) said that the organization is neither aware of nor part of any legislative efforts related to ATC reform. A4A was among the most vocal and influential backers of Shuster's bill last year. 

Kenneth Button, a transportation economist at the George Mason Schar School of Policy and Government, said that for now, he doubts the recent shutdown will be enough of a catalyst to put ATC privatization over the top. The White House and Congress, he said, are likely to continue to focus on more front-and-center matters like Trump's border wall proposal and the planned withdrawal from Syria. 

But Button said he does believe that U.S. ATC will eventually be removed from the auspices of the FAA. 

"This is one little nudge, perhaps, forward," he said.

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