Air traffic control reform is necessary to bring our nation—s navigational systems into the modern era to enhance safety and improve the flying experience for consumers. The Federal Aviation Administration—s Inspector General—s new report makes it clear that keeping things the way they are is not acceptable. It is disappointing that some in the general aviation community would defend the status quo and fight efforts to restructure the FAA so that a federally chartered not-for-profit, independent organization can focus on modernizing and streamlining air traffic control operations.
The Facts About Air Traffic Control Reform
No one is proposing that the United States adopt a system like that one in the United Kingdom; the proposal is more closely modeled on Nav Canada, but it is important to note that a proposal developed by the leadership of Congress— Transportation & Infrastructure Committee will be specifically designed for the U.S. airspace and stakeholders.
William Garvey, editor in chief of Business & Commercial Aviation, recently noted that when Canada transferred its air traffic control operations to Nav Canada in 1996, that transition was —watched with keen interest [in the U.S.] with dire predictions — that airlines would take control, that fees would price general and business aviation out of the system, and that the executives would richly reward themselves.— That, however, is not what happened, according to Rudy Toering, president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association. In fact, he said the system —has turned into a little bit of a jewel for Canada.—
Congressmen Sam Graves and Todd Rokita, leaders in general aviation, recently wrote in The Hill:
—It is true that our nation—s airspace is complex, and also that our general aviation presence is the largest in the world. But that does not preclude us from designing an Air Traffic Control Organization that is superior to any system in existence today. To say it cannot be done is to challenge the very fiber of American ingenuity. We must adopt our own way that meets the unique needs of our system and its users while continuing to operate the safest air traffic control system in the world.—
Here—s what proponents of air traffic control reform are calling for:
- The creation of a federally chartered not-for-profit, independent organization to oversee all aspects of air traffic control. This organization will remain under the oversight of the appropriate federal agency.
- Board members will be nominated by aviation stakeholders and the federal government, including employee unions and air passengers.
- The new organization will be self-funded by airlines through a sliding scale of user fees based on their use of the system, which will end the current federal ticket taxes that consumers pay.
- The proposed restructuring changes the FAA—s governance and financing, which will alleviate the inordinate amount of system-stress that impacts recruiting, training and retention of air traffic controllers. Over the last five years, the FAA has missed its hiring goals, and more than 3,000 controllers are expected to retire in the coming years, putting a serious strain on current employees.
Here are just a few of the findings from the FAA—s Inspector General that make significant reforms impossible so long as the status quo remains:
- [T]he DOT IG found that FAA—s air traffic facility footprint has remained essentially unchanged at 317 air traffic facilities, and the agency has not taken advantage of opportunities to reduce its facility costs. Notably, since 2000, the agency has not converted any of its FAA-operated towers to the Federal Contract Tower Program, despite its recognition of potential cost savings (in 2012, the DOT IG found that a contract tower costs on average about $1.5 million less to operate than a comparable FAA tower).
- FAA—s / organizational structure, which has been resistant to change, further deters its reform efforts.
——The DOT IG also found that FAA—s reforms have fallen short in responding to legislation calling for improved delivery of new technologies and capabilities.
- To help reduce cost and schedule risks, FAA adopted a segmented approach to its major acquisitions, including those under the FAA—s NextGen initiative. However, the DOT IG found that FAA—s implementation of this approach has led to unclear and inconsistent reporting on overall program costs, schedules and benefits.
- For example, although FAA reported that it completed the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) ground infrastructure largely on-budget and on-schedule, there are many unknowns that impact the success of the program — services to pilots and controllers are limited because FAA has yet to complete planned modernization of systems that controllers rely on, problems related to the display of ADS-B data on FAA—s air traffic control automation systems at four test sites remain unresolved, and the $6.6 billion costs of the current portion of the program are not expected to outweigh the projected program benefits by $588 million.
- Eight of the 15 major system acquisitions that were going on as of September 30, 2013 had cost increases and eight had schedule delays. Overall, ongoing major system acquisitions experienced a cumulative cost increase of $3.8 billion beyond FAA—s original estimates, and delays ranging from seven to 174 months, with an average delay of 51 months.
- FAA—s major acquisitions since the creation of the ATO continue to experience performance issues. Six programs experienced cost increases totaling $692 million and schedule delays averaging 25 months.
–Notwithstanding reforms, the DOT IG found that several underlying and systemic issues, including overambitious plans, shifting requirements, software development problems, ineffective contract and program management, and unreliable cost and schedule estimates, impact FAA—s ability to introduce new technologies and capabilities that are critical to transitioning to NextGen.
A non-profit air traffic control entity would be well suited to fix those flaws, and others, plaguing the ATC system because it would free the system from political micromanagement, liberate it from the federal budget process, and enable it to replace a bureaucratic culture with a serve-the-customers business culture.
Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation and a former senior advisor to four U.S. presidents and the FAA.