Air Traffic Control Newsletter #145

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #145

Second-year ATC corporation bill

In this issue:

Second-Year ATC Bill Significantly Improved

The Mark 2 version of Chairman Shuster’s ATC corporatization bill, passed by the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee on June 27th, contains significant improvements over last year’s Mark 1 version. The changes show that Committee GOP leadership listened to concerns from small airports, rural states, conservatives, and other members of Congress, but without watering down the basic idea of converting the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization into a nonprofit corporation governed by a stakeholder board and funded via charges for ATC services rather appropriations from the federal budget.

Among the most important changes are to the governance structure. Instead of having 4 of 13 seats nominated by major-airlines trade group A4A, the new version has only one nominated by A4A, a second nominated by the regional airlines, and a third by the cargo airlines (as I recommended in my May 17th testimony). This undercuts the campaign by NBAA and its front group, Alliance for Aviation Across America, urging that we “don’t put big airlines in charge” of air traffic control. The bill also adds airports to the list of stakeholders, as I’ve also recommended. Another section spells out board members’ fiduciary duty to the Corporation, and prohibits them from being employed by any aviation organization will serving on the board. Very importantly, the bill differs from the White House ATC reform principles in making the stakeholder categories ongoing, rather than applying only to the transition period.

Having board seats nominated by airports and regional airlines should reduce the perception that small airports and rural states will lose out from corporatization. And other new provisions go further in that direction. A Chapter 907, “General Rights of Access to Airspace, Airports, and Air Traffic Services” includes the following:

  • Sec. 90701 “Directs the Secretary to ensure that no user is denied access to airspace on the basis of the user being exempt from charges and fees.”
  • Sec. 90702 requires the Secretary to determine “whether a proposal would materially reduce access to a public use airport.”
  • Sec. Sec. 90703 aims to protect contract towers.
  • Sec. 90705 provides for the Secretary to review whether any proposal by the Corporation to modify, reduce, decommission, or eliminate an ATC service or navigation facility “would hinder access to a public-use airport or airspace for any class, category, or type of aircraft in operation.”

General aviation gets a stronger exemption from any ATC fees or charges than last year, and so (alas) do business jets.

A new Chapter 915 provides for congressional oversight of the ATC service provider. It includes:

  • Quarterly reports by the DOT Inspector General during the three-year transition period;
  • Biennial reports from the Corporation to Congress on the state of ATC services, including charges and fees, safety, interactions with federal agencies, etc.;
  • An annual financial report once the Corporation is up and running; and,
  • Submission of the Corporation’s strategic plans within 15 days after Board approval.

Also, to address concerns expressed by some conservative groups that last year’s bill was a “give-away to unions,” the bill adds an explicit prohibition on strikes by employees and requires the termination of employees who engage in such activities (Sec. 91109).

The bill authorizes spending of existing aviation excise tax revenues during the next five fiscal years, showing that as of FY 2021 the Trust Fund would only be paying for the Airport Improvement Program, since the Corporation’s ATC fees would cover its capital and operating costs from that point onward. The general fund would cover FAA’s remaining operations and the full cost of the Essential Air Service program, since the ATC overflight fees that now provide nearly half of the EAS budget would remain with the Corporation, as they should.

All in all, this year’s bill is a big improvement over last year’s model.

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AOPA’s Surprising Opposition

For the past year, in sharp contrast to NBAA’s all-out war against ATC corporatization, the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) has been a model of decorum and representing its members’ concerns. President Mark Baker issued no blasts against corporatization, per se, but insisted repeatedly that there be no fees of any kind for any component of general aviation. That was important, because last year’s bill distinguished between commercial GA (such as air taxis) that would pay ATC fees, and non-commercial GA (defined as any aircraft not operated for paying customers) that would be exempt. I’m sure AOPA leadership also listened to the fears and concerns stirred up by NBAA over supposed loss of access to the National Airspace System (NAS), but AOPA’s daily emails did not join in that kind of propaganda, to its credit.

So House T&I passes this year’s version, with no user fees for any category of GA, and adds explicit provisions protecting small airports and access to the NAS—strong enough provisions to win over Rep. Sam Graves (R, MO), Co-Chair of the House GA Caucus (who’d voted against last year’s bill). Before the T&I vote, Graves told Politico that his extensive discussions with Shuster had succeeded in getting parity on the board, access to the airspace for all segments of aviation, and no fees at all for general aviation.

So how did AOPA respond to having gotten everything it asked for? It issued a joint statement with five other GA groups opposing “privatization” and urged its members to contact their members of Congress to oppose the bill. Scrambling around for a rationale—despite having gotten everything it asked for—AOPA’s statement rested on this slender reed: “We have concluded that any structural and governance reforms that require protections for an important sector of users is fundamentally flawed,” and also that the measure “will produce uncertainty and unintended consequences without achieving the desired outcomes.” No rationale was provided for either assertion.

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Broader Support for ATC Corporatization

The rising visibility of ATC reform appears to have led to broader support. One sign of the times is a public opinion survey released on June 20th by polling firm Morning Consult. The question asked was this: “Do you support or oppose a plan that would establish an independent, not-for-profit corporation to run the U.S. air traffic control system, instead of the Federal Aviation Administration?” A plurality of 42% said yes, versus 32% saying no and 27% undecided. This is in sharp contrast with February results released by a group opposing corporatization, whose loaded wording I critiqued in the February issue—and which found that 62% of voters opposed “privatizing” ATC.

Next, there has been a flurry of articles in major media supporting the idea, including a strong column by Wall Street Journal Middle Seat columnist Scott McCartney (June 21st), a matter-of-fact news story in The Economist (June 10th), a positive piece in MIT Technology Review (June 15th), a supportive piece in National Review (June 26th), an op-ed by MIT’s William Swelbar in the Kansas City Star (June 30th), an editorial saying the idea is “worth exploring” in the Oklahoman (June 11th), a Newsday op-ed by Heritage Foundation transportation researcher Michael Sargent (June 29th), and a commentary in The Hill by former DOT Secretaries Norm Mineta and Jim Burnley (June 25th).

The support from National Review and Heritage Foundation illustrates that opposition to aspects of ATC corporatization on the center/right is drying up. On June 26th, the National Taxpayers Union sent an open letter to Congress supporting ATC corporatization signed by 23 senior officials or transportation researchers at center/right organizations, including ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, NCPA, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Taxpayers Protection Alliance, as well as think tank researchers (including me). The only taxpayer group not supporting corporatization is Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, whose opposition nobody can figure out.

In addition, all three former Chief Operating Officers of the Air Traffic Organization—Russ Chew, Hank Krakowski, and David Grizzle— sent a letter to Congress supporting corporatization. Controllers’ union NATCA endorsed Shuster’s new version, as they did last year’s bill. Two Democrats—Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D, HI), and Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ)—signed on as co-sponsors of Shuster’s bill. The Global Business Travel Association urged passage, including a request to the Ways & Means Committee to shift the cost of the system from aviation taxes to ATC fees. And last year’s lone airline opponent—Delta—has been silent on the subject this year, following a change of top management last year.

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Remote Towers Offer Better ATC Service for Small Airports

Over the past year’s debates on ATC corporatization, opponents’ most effective argument was that an ATC corporation “dominated by the major airlines” put at risk continued access to the National Airspace System (NAS) for small airports. I believe this concern was a major factor in the lack of a corporatization provision in the Senate Commerce Committee’s bill to reauthorize the FAA, since rural areas have far more representation in the Senate than they do in the House. This year’s House bill does a lot in response to those concerns: new provisions assuring access and providing review by the DOT Secretary of proposed reductions in facilities and services, reducing the number of board seats nominated by major airlines to just one and adding regional airlines and airports as new stakeholders, etc. Substantively, those changes should be sufficient—but the fear, uncertainty, and doubt about small airports have not yet been overcome.

The crux of this issue is control towers for small airports—retaining the ones already in place under the Contract Tower program and extending such services to additional airports that qualify under a sensible benefit/cost standard. A new report by airport policy expert Steve Van Beek offers new hope for small airports.

In the 29-page report, Van Beek makes public the little-known fact that, following the budget sequester of 2013, the FAA imposed a moratorium on any new contract towers—and despite Congress recently becoming aware of the moratorium, there are no signs that FAA will have funding available to lift it any time soon. Understandably, with its ongoing budget limitations and uncertainties, FAA is prioritizing a limited set of NextGen projects as offering the most bang for the buck. More small airport towers are simply not a high priority in this environment.

Van Beek then explains Remote Tower technology as a promising path forward for small airports. As I’ve chronicled in this newsletter for several years, the idea of using a ground-level control facility with all the needed data coming from an array of sensors on one or more tall poles at the airport has moved from theory to practice in other countries. Remote Towers are certified and in operation in Sweden, and implementation efforts are well under way in Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, and the U.K.

Because their camera arrays include infrared, Remote Towers provide greater visibility for controllers at night, during fog and rainfall, etc. So their benefits are likely to be larger than those of conventional towers. Their capital costs are significantly less than a traditional tower, and in some configurations already under way in Europe (several small airports managed from a single Remote Tower Center), the operating costs per airport will also be lower. Larger benefits and lower costs mean that getting to a benefit/cost ratio of at least 1.0 will be easier for Remote Towers than conventional ones.

Finally, Van Beek comes to the bottom line for small U.S. airports. FAA currently has no funded RT program. By contrast, the self-funded ATC corporations in Europe are the pioneers in implementing RTs. They have both the motivation (better service for small airports) and the means (a robust, bondable revenue stream) to make good use of RTs’ potential. Thus, an appropriately structured ATC corporation would be objectively better for small airports than the dismal status quo.
http://reason.org/files/air_traffic_control_remote_towers.pdf

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Electronic Flight Strips: FAA and Nav Canada Compared

At the May 17th House T&I Committee hearing on ATC reform at which I testified, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR) asserted that FAA was approached about 10 years ago by Nav Canada, offering its electronic flight strips technology, but that FAA turned them down because their system was judged to be not advanced enough. Over the last few months I’ve looked into how both FAA and Nav Canada have approached this subject, and my findings illustrate profound differences between the two ATC providers.

A retired controller told me that FAA was discussing the possible replacement of paper flight progress strips with some kind of electronic version in the 1960s and ’70s. A think tank researcher did some digging and found a number of papers online. The earliest one is a 1991 paper from Lincoln Laboratory describing a Tower Control Computer Complex (TCCC) that included an electronic flight strip system; TCCC was part of the massive Advanced Automation System (AAS) program that was cancelled in 1994, with the majority of its $2.6 billion declared as having been wasted. A January 1999 FAA paper detailing a National Airspace System Architecture, Version 4.0 called for electronic flight strips as part of another massive modernization that was to be fully implemented by 2015 (didn’t happen). And a 2003 presentation from MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation provided a “Preliminary Design and Evaluation of Portable Electronic Flight Progress Strips.” Yet here we are in 2017 with paper flight strips having become the current poster child of FAA’s technological backwardness, as vacuum tubes were during the Clinton Administration’s ATC corporatization effort in the 1990s.

I then asked Nav Canada for a capsule history of its development and implementation of this technology. The initial prototypes were developed by in-house teams at the Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto towers in the 1990s. Those initial systems, dubbed the Extended Computer Display System (EXCDS) worked so well that Nav Canada made this a national program in 1998. The first “all glass” tower, featuring second-generation EXCDS 2, was implemented at Toronto tower in 1988. A third generation, EXCDS 3, was installed in major tower/terminal operations during 2001-2003. By 2006 all 42 towers and all seven area control centers were equipped, and the system was added to flight service stations in 2007-2009.

The first commercialization of the system began with Nav Canada discussions with NATS in the U.K. in 2001, leading to NATS’ purchase of the system in 2003.  At the same time, EXCDS was demonstrated to the FAA, but those discussions went nowhere. Subsequently, Nav Canada’s NAVCANatm division has sold tower automation systems including evolved versions of EXCDS to ATC providers in Australia, Copenhagen, Dubai, India, the Dutch Caribbean, and Italy in addition to the U.K. The idea that a system used every day with excellent performance worldwide, including at Dubai International and London Heathrow (two of the world’s biggest airports) is unsatisfactory for the United States is nonsense.

After reviewing these very different histories, here is my assessment. Nav Canada’s approach is to field new systems as quickly as practical to immediately begin delivering safety and customer benefits. The systems then evolve based on operational feedback, and are continually upgraded. FAA, by contrast, strives to implement the perfect system with all the bells and whistles from the get-go. But this often leads to large delays, major cost overruns, and, finally when the over-budget and delayed system reaches the field, the technology often isn’t state-of-the-art, because technology moves so quickly. FAA’s approach is symptomatic of its current structure: to win funding for any project in the political process, it needs to sell it as a huge, big-bang project, rather than use the successful incremental process Nav Canada employs.

Another producer of electronic flight strips emailed me about FAA’s current program, Terminal Flight Data Manager, which will include e-strips, but only for control towers. The contract, awarded in July 2016, calls for the contractor to first “develop” the system. This will eventually be followed by procurement contracts, which should lead to control towers having e-strips about 10 years from now, despite off-the-shelf e-strips systems being offered today by at least two companies with satisfied e-strips customers. As another colleague described it, getting back to DeFazio’s claim, “Basically, what they are saying is that Nav Canada is no good because more than 10 years ago Nav Canada was not capable of providing the FAA with something that FAA will have 10 years from now.” What kind of sense does that make?

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Should the ATC Corporation Pay for Spectrum?
By Dorothy Robyn

Although I strongly support Chairman Shuster’s legislation to spin off the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) as a private, non-profit corporation, the 21st Century AIRR Act errs in providing for the Corporation to use the (federal) spectrum needed to provide air traffic services at no cost.  Radio spectrum is the ATO’s most valuable asset.  The Act should incentivize the Corporation to make more efficient use of this high-opportunity-cost resource, in keeping with the goal of running air traffic control like a business.

The federal government is a major user of the most highly valued radio frequencies (225-3700 MHz), and the FAA is the second-largest federal spectrum user (the Defense Department is the largest).  The FAA occupies some particularly prime spectrum real estate.  For example, FAA estimates that the 1300-1350 MHz band, a chunk of federal spectrum used for surveillance radar—primarily FAA radar—would generate $19 billion if usage rights were auctioned off to commercial users.

Because it is so valuable, the FAA’s spectrum can help pay for NextGen.  The FAA is currently leading a multi-agency effort, SENSR (Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar), to upgrade and consolidate federal surveillance radar platforms so as to use a smaller amount of less-valuable spectrum, freeing up the 1300-1350 MHz band for auction by the Federal Communications Commission.  Thanks to recent legislation, the agencies involved in initiatives like SENSR can get advance access to auction proceeds to pay for a range of relocation planning activities, including R&D, engineering studies, and “fly offs” among replacement systems.  Follow-on relocation costs, such as procurement and the installation of new, more spectrum-efficient systems, can be covered by auction proceeds post-auction.

If Congress corporatizes the ATO, the radio frequencies used to provide air traffic services will nevertheless remain federal spectrum for a simple reason: they are in bands shared by multiple federal agencies.  Thus, while the AIRR Act must provide for the newly created Corporation, as a private entity, to utilize federal spectrum, it should do so in a way that promotes efficient utilization.

First, the Act should make explicit that, solely for purposes of spectrum consolidation and relocation, the Corporation’s frequencies should be treated as federal spectrum.  This approach, which is consistent with the language in the Trump Administration’s “Principles for Reforming the U.S. Air Traffic Control System,” will ensure that the Corporation can draw on auction proceeds to finance relocation expenses broadly defined.

Second, and more controversial, as a condition for access to auction proceeds, Congress should require the Corporation to lease spectrum from the federal government at a price that reflects its commercial value.  The corporatization of air traffic control is premised on the ability of a private service provider to capture the efficiencies of market forces.  If the Corporation is allowed to use federal spectrum for free—as if it had no opportunity cost—corporatization will not achieve the desired efficiencies.

Charging fees for federal spectrum is not a new idea.  Economists going back to Ronald Coase have proposed that agencies pay opportunity-cost-based fees for the federal spectrum they use, much as agencies pay commercial-equivalent rent to GSA for the space they occupy in federal buildings.  Although that proposal has met resistance, largely because it would be so costly to implement, transaction costs would not be an impediment to imposing fees in this case, which is further distinguished by the fact that the user of federal spectrum would be private.

Moreover, there is recent precedent for the lease of federal spectrum to a private user:  in March, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent government entity linked to the Department of Commerce, selected AT&T to build a dedicated wireless broadband network for use by public safety agencies nationwide.  Under the terms of the 25-year agreement, FirstNet will provide AT&T with 20 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band and up to $6.5 billion for initial network construction over the first five years.  AT&T will pay FirstNet $18 billion in cash over the life of the agreement for the use of the spectrum, most ($16 billion) of which FirstNet will reinvest in the buildout of the network in rural areas.

Aircraft operators will no doubt object to the imposition of spectrum fees on the Corporation (reflecting this perspective, the Administration’s principles state that “the new ATC entity should not be charged for its use of spectrum”).  They will argue that Nav Canada, the model for the AIRR Act, does not pay spectrum fees to the Canadian Government.  But Nav Canada is no model in this respect.  As innovative as that organization has been, it has no incentive to use its spectrum more efficiently because the opportunity cost of the resource is invisible.

One possible compromise would be to direct the spectrum fees paid by the Corporation to investment in parts of the air traffic system that, while socially desirable, may not meet a narrow cost-benefit test—similar to FirstNet’s reinvestment of AT&T’s spectrum lease payments in rural buildout.  Whatever the approach, the AIRR Act should reflect the fact that spectrum will be the Corporation’s highest-cost input and the Corporation needs to face that cost if it is to achieve the broader efficiencies envisioned by the Act.

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News Notes

Remote Towers in Mainstream Media. In the lead article in its Science and Technology section May 27thThe Economist provided a detailed overview of the concept of remote towers. It gave a number of examples of pilot projects and in-service use of these towers in Europe, while also mentioning the current non-FAA pilot project in Leesburg, VA. The article’s closing line was as follows: “Along with the [flight] engineer in the cockpit, smoking in the cabin, and plenty of leg-room, the control tower looks like becoming a relic of aviation’s past.”

New ATC Resources Online, from CEI. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute last month posted two new documents on Cei.org dealing with ATC reform. Web Memo No. 39 is “Air Traffic Control Reform 2017: Frequently Asked Questions,” and is based on last month’s bill approved by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The other, No. 40, is “Dispelling Six Myths on Air Traffic Control Reform and Labor Relations,” aimed at countering the mistaken contention that ATC corporatization is a “give-away to unions.”

London City Airport Shifting to Remote Tower. NATS, the self-funded ATC corporation of the United Kingdom, has reached agreement with investor-owned London City Airport to replace its conventional control tower with a state-of-the-art remote tower. The new location for controllers will be the NATS control center at Swanwick, 80 miles north of the airport. Removing the existing tower at London City will free up land for the airport’s modest expansion plan; the remote-tower equipment (from Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions) will be mounted on a 164-ft. tower located in the airport’s long-term parking lot.

Aireon’s Second Batch of ADS-B Satellites in Orbit. Thanks to a flawless launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the second set of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites was launched into space on June 25th. All 10 achieved orbit, bringing the planned 66-satellite constellation a step closer to completion. A total of 81 satellites are being built, to include 9 as on-orbit spares and 6 as ground spares. Once the full constellation is operational in 2018, Aireon will begin providing global space-based ADS-B surveillance over 100% of the earth’s airspace, including all oceanic and polar regions.

Airways New Zealand Renews Island-Nation Contract. In a five-year renewal of existing contracts, self-supporting Airways New Zealand will continue to provide upper-airspace air traffic control for the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, and Tonga. Since Airways is responsible for other South Pacific oceanic airspace, the contracts will continue to provide seamless upper-airspace ATC services in a wide swath of that oceanic airspace. The contract was signed on June 29th.

Eno Report Proposes FAA Safety Regulation Reforms. In a new June 2017 report, the Eno Center for Transportation has proposed a set of reforms to streamline and modernize the FAA’s regulation of air safety. Its general principles are to focus on the outcome, not the output; to create an Aviation Certification Exchange to advise the FAA on best practices; and to standardize the training received by industry people to whom various oversight duties are delegated by the agency. The report was produced by a broadly-based Aviation Working Group organized by Eno. “Safer, Faster, Cheaper: Aviation Certification for the 21st Century” is posted on the enotrans.org website.

Governance of ATC Corporations, McGill University. Paul Dempsey, Director Emeritus of the Institute of Air & Space Law at McGill University, has reminded me that their organization did a comparative study of the governance of 10 corporatized air navigation service providers, including those of Canada, Germany, and the U.K. It is online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2699287.

Spain to Overhaul ATC Infrastructure. Enaire, the ATC corporation of Spain, in May announced an Air Navigation Plan 2017-2020. The aim is to configure the system for projected growth in air traffic and to get its ATC infrastructure ready for the Single European Sky. The plan includes a new Automated ATC System software (SACTA), controller-pilot data communications, upgraded surveillance, including EGNOS and ADS-B, and a new air navigation data network. From 2018 to 2020, en-route charges are projected to be cut by 11.5%.

Leesburg Remote Tower Testing Under Way. The second phase of the remote tower demonstration project at non-towered Leesburg (VA) Executive Airport, began June 5th and will run through early September. Although FAA is participating by loaning controllers for the project, it is not directly funding it. The costs are being covered by the State of Virginia and technology provider Saab Sensis.

Sense-and-Avoid System for Small Drones. Aviation Week (June 26-July 9, 2017) reports that UtopiaCompression is developing a sense-and-avoid system for small unmanned aerial systems (UAS). For small UAS vehicles operating in uncontrolled airspace below 400 ft., some such system will be necessary as the UAS volume increases. To keep the system’s weight, power-requirements, and costs to be small enough for this purpose, UC has developed an algorithm using data from a single electro-optical/infrared camera system to determine the 3D position and velocity of other flying objects. The system was tested by DARPA in April 2016, and is being readied for commercial production by UC.

Brennan to Head Eurocontrol. Congratulations to Eamonn Brennan, who was recently named as the new Director General of Eurocontrol. Brennan has been the innovative CEO of the Irish Aviation Authority, an early mover on ATC reform and modernization. Eurocontrol runs the Central Flow Management Unit to coordinate ATC operations across national borders in Europe. It also collects all overflight charges there, via its Central Route Charges Office. And it provides a multi-nation venue for civil/military ATC cooperation.

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Quotable Quotes

“The FAA’s track record on ATC modernization programs is riddled with delays and cost overruns. And, most significantly, Congress’s abysmal record of keeping a consistent, reliable flow of funding to the FAA has made FAA ‘reauthorization’ a poster child for dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Republicans, Democrats, and aviation stakeholders must try to reason together to achieve this reasonable objective of reform. Rhetoric about turning over critical national assets to ‘special interests’ is not helpful. Nor is raising the specter of a decline in safety; that is a red herring. And all parties should be willing to make compromises. It is time for Congress to get going on creating an independent air traffic system. Other nations have done it successfully. The U.S. can, too.”
—Editorial, “U.S. Needs ATC Reform,” Aviation Week, June 12-25, 2017

“There was a time when the United States was the gold standard in every aspect of air traffic control. Those days of global leadership, regrettably, have vanished. The U.S. no longer has the most modern equipment, the most efficient routings, or the best technology of any of the world’s air traffic control providers. Further, the accumulated effects of budget unpredictability and a bureaucratic organizational structure have severely slowed progress on implementing next-generation technologies and inhibited our ability to properly staff facilities and procure the best equipment for our nation’s air traffic controllers.”
—Russell Chew, Henry Krakowski, and David Grizzle, former COOs of the FAA Air Traffic Organization, letter to Chairman Shuster, June 8, 2017

“The present day ATC system is inadequate. It often operates with obsolete equipment, understaffed and undertrained personnel, and inefficient procedures. . . .  The yearly congressional budgeting uncertainty creates funding instability in vital acquisition programs which lead to contractor stops, starts, delays, and layoffs in programs everyone agrees should be funded and which were, in fact, previously approved in the National Airspace System (NAS) plan. . . . We propose to create a federal corporation to run the air traffic control system. . . . In light of our country’s increasing reliance on air transportation, we need to untie the hands of the system to deal with increased traffic loads and additional personnel needs.”
—Sen. Ted Stevens (R, AK), in the Congressional Record, introducing a bill to corporatize the ATC system, co-sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D, HI), May 6, 1987 (this quotation courtesy of Jeff Davis, Eno Transportation Weekly)

“As for the airlines not being expert in specifying, building, buying, or operating ATC solutions for ATC, so what. They don’t get to do that now. Rather, like all other government procurements, this process is overseen and the size of it determined by the great brains that populate our Congress, by virtue of the authorization and appropriation processes, and by government procurement regulations designed to protect the integrity of the process, rather than to get stuff done expeditiously and effectively. It is a difficult, complex, opaque, time-consuming, painful, and, in the end, counterproductive process. The purpose of [an ATC corporation] board, however composed, is not to know the details of these issues but to hire management that does know how to do these things and, in this case, agree to raise the money to pay for them, determine how that will happen, and hold them accountable. That’s what boards do.”
—David Plavin, commentary on Mifnet, March 21, 2017 (used here by permission)

“Ensuring the continuity of first-rate safety regulation is a key part of any ATC reform effort. If ATC responsibilities were removed from the FAA . . . safety would become the FAA’s primary function, and as such, it would regulate the new ATC provider at arm’s length. This would put the FAA in line with the other modal agencies within the U.S. DOT, and would mean ATC would be regulated just like the other parts of the aviation industry, such as the airlines and manufacturers. It is important to note that no other major agency within DOT both operates and regulates a transportation service. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration regulates railroads and issues grants, but does not manage train dispatching. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates the safety of motor vehicles, but does not set speed limits or control traffic lights. . . . Both national and international practices and guidelines highlight the problematic situation of having an entity both operating a service and regulating its safety. . . . The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends clear separation of authority and responsibility between the regulatory functions and service provision functions.”
Rui Neiva, “ATC Reform: Should FAA Be the Safety Regulator of Its Own Operations?” Eno Transportation Weekly, March 9, 2017

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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.