Last updated: 10:15 AM ET, Fri December 11 2015

Aviation Funding Debate Focus Shifts to Air Traffic Control

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | December 11, 2015

Aviation Funding Debate Focus Shifts to Air Traffic Control

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

The upcoming congressional debate over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration will likely center on air traffic control – whether it is properly staffed, when the agency can switch from its current radar-based navigation system to satellite-based, and whether the government should consider a Republican-proposed plan to partially privatize air traffic control.

Airlines For America, the lobby group that represents virtually every major U.S. airline, is all for the plan.

"We strongly encourage congressional leaders to reform and modernize our ATC system, thus restoring our place as a leader in aviation technology, making air travel more efficient for all of our passengers and maintaining our world-class safety record," A4A said in a blog on its website. "We think the best way to modernize the system is to create a federally chartered, non-profit organization to oversee ATC operations, while allowing the FAA to continue working to ensure the U.S. has the safest skies in the world.”

But in a roundtable hosted this week by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at which numerous issues were thrown on the table for discussion, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said any talk of privatization is putting the cart before the horse.

First, Rinaldi said, should be a discussion on the shortfall in air traffic control staffing as well as the uncertainty over FAA funding.

"Air traffic controller staffing has been a concern for many years, but it has now reached a crisis level," Rinaldi said. "I’ve said it repeatedly over the past few years: the status quo is unacceptable. Controller staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, and the FAA has missed its hiring goals in each of the last five years. With one third of our workforce eligible to retire, the FAA’s bureaucratic structure is failing us. In fiscal year 2015, the FAA fell 24 percent below its staffing goals. If this situation continues unaddressed, we will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity, let alone expand and modernize the system."

Rinaldi stressed that the safety of the air traffic control system is not at risk. But, he added, maintaining that safety is coming at the cost of efficiency and modernization. Instead, the problems that result could be delays in flights as the number of fully certified air traffic controllers is at the lowest level in 27 years.

The FAA’s current funding is set to expire on March 31. The agency already was given a six-month extension, and further delays will only hinder the implementation of a $40 billion conversion to the satellite-based navigational system known as NextGen. But the government’s General Accounting Office said in a report that the constant delays in funding are hampering the implementation of the new system.

"Although current segments of FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) programs are generally on schedule, past budget uncertainty has delayed final investment decisions for certain NextGen program segments," the report said. "According to FAA officials, while the additional incremental costs associated with budget uncertainty are difficult to determine, past budget uncertainty has delayed the benefits of NextGen, creating a lack of confidence among industry partners.”


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