Today, Travelers United was part of a discussion at the Brookings Institute about the future of the air traffic control system (ATC). Our organization has come out strongly for changing the air traffic organization. Travelers United agrees that moving the system out of the government and into a non-governmental nonprofit corporate organization is the way to provide for steady funding and release from stringent government controls. We need a system that can respond to changes in technology in a timely manner and that can take advantage of changes in technology to improve the system.
It seems that the airlines, pilots, past Secretaries of Transportation, air traffic controllers, and Travelers United have all come out in favor of establishing a new air traffic control operations organization outside of the government. The safety portion of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will continue with its safety role, but operations will be corporatized outside of the government. Sixty countries have already split their ATC systems from their governmental operations. It simply works better when it comes to keeping up with information technology changes and purchasing activities.
On the other hand, there are forces that have been working to stop this kind of transition. Each has its own particular reasons for being against ATC reform. However, each group’s rationale for opposing a reorganization of the systems will continue to leave the flying public, who pay for the system, with an ATC operation that is not technically up-to-date and that is falling behind the rest of the world year after year.
Here is my roll call of organizations and groups that have not embraced organization change and are against ATC reform.
NBAA — This is the National Business Aviation Association, or corporate jet owners and operators. They have been leaders against ATC reform. This group is already exempt from paying fees to the current ATC operation and it wants to keep its sweetheart deal for use of our airspace and the ATC operations. Of course, the passengers and most of the owners of corporate jets are the very group that can pay any increased ATC fees. It is shameful when corporate greed overshadows the public good.
Unions — Government unions are loath to have thousands of air traffic controllers leave the ranks of the federal government unions and move to the private sector. Any government action that lessens their power will mean they will be against ATC reform. In this case, the most important union when it comes to ATC reform — air traffic controllers — is in favor of change. The union is tired of the uncertainty of government funding, sequestration, and continued FAA mismanagement or air traffic controller recruitment, training, and management.
Appropriators — This was a surprise to me until I visited the staff of the Appropriations Committee members. Normally, the job of the appropriations committee is to find enough federal monies to make organizations approved and created by other committees operational. So far, the ATC has never been shortchanged. However, even after decades of mismanagement, appropriators seem to always want to be able to control the pursestrings to make a system operate the way they want it to function.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case with America’s ATC system. Though appropriators have never shorted the FAA funding for ATC operations, this shift of tens of billions of dollars from their control to the control of a private, nonprofit corporation may be a step too far. Appropriators generally hate to relinquish oversight of funding. This will be one of the largest shifts of control from the government to a new nonprofit corporation in recent history.
Appropriators are beginning to line up, claiming that they need oversight of the system, though one would be hard-pressed to find any appropriator who understands the difference between RNP and ADS-B. Most have no idea of what the acronyms represent. It is this kind of government bureaucratic inertia that may doom meaningful change.
Appropriators must cast aside their unrealistic dreams of “oversight” of a system they do not fully understand and allow experts to move forward with modernization. Aircraft should not still be following the trans-continental routes once marked by bonfires. Like virtually every member of the public, airline pilots should be able to depend on GPS directions rather than trails marked by old bonfires left over from Charles Lindburgh’s days.
General Aviation (GA) — Private pilots until now sided with the NBAA. There has begun to be a crack in that relationship with major supporters of GA now admitting that their concerns with changes envisioned in the new ATC organization bill have been eliminated. However, private pilots are still not happy about having to spend extra funds on new avionics in their planes to become fully integrated into the new, updated, and modern ATC. They may still stand against ATC reform.
The current air traffic system is not keeping up with changing technology. So far, over the past two decades, government has not figured out how to fix the funding, management, recruitment, and IT issues that are standing in the way of modernization. We need a better way.
It is time to shift to a corporatized system based on the successful system established in Canada that has allowed them to leapfrog the US in technology while at the same time decreasing the operation costs for the public.
Better technology at lower costs with no drop in safety sounds like the way to go.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.