Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #13

Topics include: House committee blocks ATC reform; a "dream" Aviation Subcommittee hearing on ATC reform; former FAA Admin. Langhorne Bond's case for arms-length ATC safety regulation; and the military and contract towers.

In this issue:

House Committee Blocks ATC Reform

Rep. James Oberstar (D, MN) persuaded his colleagues on the House Aviation Subcommittee to accept NATCA’s proposal to redefine air traffic control as “inherently governmental,” as they marked up the FAA reauthorization bill on May 14th. And a week later (yesterday), the parent Transportation & Infrastructure Committee let the damaging Sec. 431 remain in the bill, unchanged. The anti-reform language reads as follows:

“The Secretary of Transportation may not authorize the transfer of the air traffic separation and control functions operated by the Federal Aviation Administration on the date of enactment of this Act to a private entity or to a public entity other than the United States government.”

But in order not to arouse opposition from the 218 communities where contract towers now operate safely and at half the cost of FAA towers, subsection (b) exempts “the contract tower program authorized by section 47124 of title 40, United States Code.”

In Senate action last month, the Commerce Committee did not include NATCA’s amendment, after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, NJ) unexpectedly failed to offer it, apparently because he lacked the votes in committee. Thus, the stage is set for a confrontation between the chambers, assuming both bills are enacted on the floor unchanged. However, Lautenberg is expected to offer his amendment when the Senate bill reaches the floor.

On May 20th, DOT Sec. Norm Mineta sent a letter to House T&I chairman Don Young expressing strong opposition to Sec. 431 as needlessly restricting DOT’s ability to manage the ATC system. The letter went on to suggest a veto if the bill were to include additional provisions from Oberstar’s HR 1711-but apparently not if Sec. 431 simply remained in the bill. That’s very unfortunate, because Sec. 431 alone is enough to prevent any meaningful reform.

Some of those who voted (unanimously!) for the House bill with Sec. 431 included may not realize how much it would actually prohibit. Not just selling the ATC system to an aerospace company; not just outsourcing some or all functions of the ATC system. It would also prohibit the conversion of Air Traffic Services to a nonprofit corporation (like Nav Canada) employing all the same people. It would even prohibit the conversion of Air Traffic Services to a government corporation like Airservices Australia or the USATS corporation proposed by the Clinton Administration. DLC Democrats should be as upset by this as free-market Republicans.

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The Hearing that Never Was

Had the Aviation Subcommittee wanted to have a serious debate about whether or not to rule out non-FAA provision of ATC services, there is no shortage of experts they could have called upon for testimony. Just off the top of my head, I could suggest a hearing that would have shed considerable light on the issues involved, rather than simply more of the same NATCA cliches of the “air safety is not for sale” variety. For example:

Panel #1 could feature three former FAA Administrators who did their best to manage the troubled ATC system, reform its Byzantine ways of doing things, and who have concluded that ATC really is a commercial activity that could be done better by some kind of independent corporate entity:

  • Langhorne Bond, Administrator 1977-81
  • David R. Hinson, Administrator 1993-97
  • T. Allan McArtor, Administrator 1987-89.

Panel #2 might have included three policy researchers who have studied the idea of ATC privatization and reached somewhat different conclusions from one another. But here they would be presenting their findings on a level playing field, with each having an opportunity to challenge the conclusions of the others:

  • Cliff Winston, Brookings Institution
  • Robert W. Poole, Jr., Reason Foundation
  • Prof. Elliott Sclar, Columbia University

A third panel might have featured managers who have actually transformed low-performing bureaucracies into customer-friendly service providers, such as:

  • John Crichton, the CEO of Nav Canada, the very successful ATC provider that evolved out of Transport Canada’s former ATC bureaucracy;
  • Bill Pollard, former head of Air Traffic for FAA who then ran Airservices Australia in its early corporatized years, accomplishing major modernization and productivity gains;
  • Norman Bowles, who has transformed the FAA Logistics Center by shifting it to user fee funding, and recently received the President’s Award for Management Excellence.

A hearing like that would have put the issue in perspective, discussing what is really at stake in mandating that ATC remain funded by taxes and embedded in a troubled bureaucracy.

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Bond’s Case for Arms-Length ATC Safety Regulation

In last month’s issue I quoted former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond on the need for arm’s-length safety regulation of ATC-regardless of which entity provides ATC services. But space precluded me from providing the context in which he made that recommendation. Here it is.

The underlying idea is that it is a conflict of interest for the same organization to both provide aviation services and regulate air safety. That’s why all 29 countries that have created ATC corporations have explicitly put those new entities at arms-length from the government safety regulator. But defenders of the status quo protest: “Oh, no-we don’t have such conflicts in FAA. Safety is job #1 across the board.”

Bond’s paper, presented at the North American Aviation Safety Conference in Atlanta (Feb. 5, 2003), provides an important case study of just such a conflict of interest. He tells the story of how the FAA’s safety office-AVR-became the chief advocate within the agency for WAAS and LAAS as GPS-based replacements for ILS. To make that case, AVR had to argue that relying on GPS as the sole means for positioning information would be safe. As we all know now, DOT’s Volpe Center produced a landmark report that demolished this proposition (ironically published on Sept. 10, 2001). Secretary Mineta endorsed the report’s findings, and he has also stated that there should be some kind of regularized ATC safety process.

As Bond suggests,

The obvious location for an ATC safety regulatory office is as a third branch in AVR, next to flight standards and certification. . . . The function should be independent of ATC operations (just as it is independent of air carrier ops and air carrier manufacturing). . . .AVR should develop an ATC safety regulatory capability . . . . And this solution is correct whether ATC remains as is, or an ATO is established, or a new ATC Administration in DOT is established, or even a non-profit Nav Canada model is set up.

Note: Bond’s paper is titled “The Hidden Cost of the Lack of ATC Safety Regulation.” I don’t think it’s available on-line, but if you want a copy, let me know.

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The Military and Contract Towers

To hear NATCA and its congressional advocates talk, you would think that contract control towers pose a security risk. For example, in Elliott Sclar’s White Paper for NATCA, he raises the alarm about “the security risk associated with private operators and their employees having unabridged access to the nation’s air traffic control systems.”

Reading that, you might think that the last people who would contract out control towers would be the U.S. military. But you would be wrong. Fact is, the Army, Air Force, and National Guard have been making use of contract towers for more than 20 years. Some of the companies are required to possess facility clearances for their work at such towers. Some even require the controllers-remember, employees of these private, for-profit firms-to obtain Secret clearances in order to work there. (As if there were anything unusual about that; I held a Secret clearance many years ago as an engineer at Sikorsky Aircraft. As engineers would say, BFD!) At Langley and Holloman Air Force Bases, one ATC firm was contracted to work side-by-side with active-duty military controllers under a contingency operations contract. That same contractor currently has a multi-year contingency operations contract with the Air Force for any needed ATC and related services they may require.

So let’s not hear any more nonsense about the national security implications of non-FAA operation of ATC facilities. It exists, it works . . . so get over it.

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Notable and Quotable

“The FAA’s move to become a performance-based organization, which would be a major efficiency gain and a step toward possible corporatization, has ‘fallen far short’ and its much-touted personnel reform has merely raised salaries, [Inspector General Ken Mead] says. ‘Just like the airlines have had to rethink the basics of their business, the FAA must also re-examine how it does business.'”

-“Man in the Middle,” by David Field, Airline Business, April 2003.

“The air traffic control system itself is plagued by inefficiencies, redundancies, and deficiencies. While recognized as the safest in the world, the system has failed to keep up with increasing demands and is not equipped to meet future growth and needs. Ultimately, its problems are harmful to aviation industry revenues, inconvenience the traveling public, and, if left unchecked, will result in a long-term drain on our economy.”

-Rep. John Mica (R, FL), Roll Call, May 5, 2003.

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