September’s AIRR House vote spotlights importance of air traffic control reform

A floor vote is expected this fall by the U.S. House of Representatives on the 21st Century AIRR Act, a critical bill proposing that the nation’s air traffic control system (ATC) become a nonprofit that operates separately from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The House last week delayed bringing the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, H.R. 2997, to the floor and now plans action in September.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), who in June introduced the AIRR Act, said Monday on Fox News that when Congress returns from its five-week recess in September “the FAA bill is a must-pass bill.”

Otherwise the legislation expires and related funding ends, which can’t happen, he said.
“At the end of the day you have to fund the FAA because you cannot shut down the airspace of the United States of America. It has too much of an impact on our economy,” Shuster said Monday night.

The bill, which passed the House transportation committee about a week after its introduction June 22, highlights the importance of reforming ATC — a much-needed update that has languished for decades, according to various sources.

“It’s hard to change anything in Washington,” Andrew Quinlan, president and CEO of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said in an interview.

“Look at Obamacare. It’s failing, but it hasn’t been changed. It’s the same with ATC,” he told Financial Regulation News. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Once you pass an entitlement or tax, it’s hard to get rid of it.”

In fact, Shuster said during the news show that the bipartisan-supported AIRR Act has been tough to move because of such bureaucracy — the kind associated with moving roughly 29,000 federal ATC employees into a non-profit entity, as well as educating lawmakers, union members and the public on how that new entity would operate.

Nevertheless, Quinlan said it’s time to get ATC out of the hands of Washington and into the private sector realm, “which can do more to clean up ATC than how it’s currently being done.”

Specifically, Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, on Tuesday cited three reasons for why the American ATC system is in desperate need of reforms.

First, the ATC funding model — annual appropriations of aviation tax money — is a poor match for the needs of a 24/7 vital high-tech service, Poole wrote in an email to Financial Regulation News.

“In recent years, we have seen non-renewal of the taxes, government shutdowns, and the 2013 budget sequester,” Poole said. “Unstable and uncertain funding makes long-range planning very difficult and produces adverse consequences, such as the nearly year-long shutdown of the controller training academy and a several-year moratorium on new contract towers for small airports.”

In all other member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ATC providers charge directly for ATC services, in turn providing “a reliable, bondable revenue stream. This is a far superior model,” he pointed out.

Too many cooks
The second reason Poole cited for reforming ATC regards its governance, which he called fragmented and intrusive because it’s overseen by 535 members of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, among others.

“This makes Congress and these other agencies the de-facto customers of the ATC system, rather than its real customers who operate aircraft in the system,” Poole said.

He compared it to the governance of Nav Canada, a nongovernmental, nonprofit corporation created in 1995 that controls Canada’s ATC. By contrast, Nav Canada has a board of directors “representing a balanced array of aviation stakeholders. They have a shared interest in a high-productivity, cost-effective service business, rather than imposing numerous political directives,” said Poole.

Robert Ordway, director of commerce, insurance and economic development at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and Jonathon Hauenschild, director of communications and technology at ALEC, said Nav Canada operates the world’s second-largest ATC system after the United States as a private nonprofit organization and is able to spend half of what the United States does.

“A private nonprofit solution would create a system of checks and balances and offer the independence necessary for innovation while reducing the long-term cost to the traveler and government alike,” they said in a jointly written email.

This suggestion aligns with Poole’s third justification: Reform ATC’s organizational culture, which is bureaucratic and status quo-oriented because it’s embedded within a safety regulatory agency, a.k.a. the FAA.

“In most other countries, the ATC provider is organizationally separate and regulated at arm’s length from the safety regulator,” he explained.

ATC systems that are separate from their safety regulators are more innovative and can more rapidly introduce new technology than what is taking place under the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, said Poole.

NextGen is currently being implemented in stages through 2025 in efforts to transition the U.S. ATC system from being radar-based to being satellite-based. The FAA reports that the modernization continues steady progress, albeit amid some controversy.

For example, NextGen critics like President Donald Trump and others say the FAA’s efforts are too slow and grossly expensive.

Marc Scribner, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, published a July 21 FAQs on ATC reforms in 2017, outlining “years of delay and billions of dollars in cost overruns that have plagued the FAA’s failed attempts to modernize air traffic control.”

U.S. ATC is provided by the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, which uses circa-1960s technologies and facilities, Scribner writes. This failure threatens to severely limit industry growth, he predicts, and then could lead to more air traffic congestion, increased flight cancellations and delays, and both wasted fuel and economic activity.

“By leaving legislation, funding, regulation and operation to government, the United States air traffic control system has fallen behind and has not had the opportunity to innovate or move beyond increasingly obsolete systems,” agreed Ordway and Hauenschild from ALEC. “New technologies are often adopted only after they are more than a decade old.”

“One of the best reasons to vote for [the AIRR Act] is to advance the technology. We are woefully behind other countries,” said U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a member of the House transportation committee, which tried but failed during the last session of Congress to push through a similar bill.

“All of the technology you probably have in your cars right now is better than what our air traffic controllers have to use in their towers,” Massie said during a Heritage Foundation event last week.