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
"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
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