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Are Skies Clearing for Rebuilding Air Traffic Control?

The question of whether the government should run the air traffic control system has been hanging over the aviation industry, and Capitol Hill, at least since President Ronald Reagan quashed the 1981 controllers’ strike. Any talk about restructuring or privatizing the operations now under the Federal Aviation Administration has long been blocked by the union representing the controllers, however, arguing that air traffic control is inherently a government function.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is reconsidering its objections, saying it may consider rebuilding the system, although not turning over operations entirely to a private business.

And with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., looking for a “transformative” reauthorization of FAA programs next year, the time may be right for a new look at the management of the country’s sprawling air traffic system.

Two recent developments account for the shift in outlook: The recurring hiccups in government funding that have disrupted commercial flights and threaten to leave the nation short of controllers, and the many setbacks the FAA has encountered in rolling out NextGen, a $40 billion project launched in 2004 to move the U.S. air traffic control system from its 1950s-era instrument landing methods to a GPS- driven system to track aircraft by 2025.

“We have to find a way to restructure the funding system to make sure it is sustainable,” said NATCA President Paul Rinaldi. “Just so we’re lean and dynamic and can address the needs of running the safest, most efficient national airspace.”

Automatic spending cuts imposed last year to keep within budget caps through a process known as sequestration forced the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers, causing flight delays and public anger. Congress had to pass emergency legislation allowing the agency to move funds around so that controllers could cover their shifts.

Later in the year, the partial government shutdown hampered the FAA’s ability to move new controller recruits through the multiyear training process. The agency needs to hire almost 12,000 new controllers by 2021 to offset the wave of retiring controllers hired to replace the 1981 strikers.

“The sequester and the shutdown were really a wake-up call to everyone to problems that have been experienced in one form or another for 30 years, those being principally the unpredictability of funding,” said David Grizzle, a former top FAA official in charge of air traffic operations.

What’s infuriating to transportation officials and legislators is that the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which pays for 80 percent of the FAA’s budget from taxes on airplane tickets, airline fuel and other fees, lies just outside their grasp. It is on solid footing — unlike its cousin, the Highway Trust Fund. In fiscal 2013, the air trust fund raised $12.9 billion and disbursed $10.9 billion, starting fiscal 2014 with a cash balance of $13.2 billion.

But Congress still needs to appropriate the money from the trust fund for it to be used, which makes it subject to sequestration and shutdowns.

“We shouldn’t be in a year-to-year appropriations process where we can’t do long-term capital investment,” Rinaldi said.

If Congress decides to move controllers out from under the FAA, there are a number of models it could choose from, as Shuster proposed.

It could, for instance, establish a government-owned corporation to perform those duties, similar to the system now in place in Australia, New Zealand and Germany. It could establish some sort of public-private partnership similar to the one in the United Kingdom. Or it could sell off its assets to a private corporation as Canada did in 1996. Funding in Canada comes from fees, which are regulated by the government.

Those five countries saw overall improvements in safety and technology after moving to a corporate model, reducing delays and saving money, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report. But moving away from a state-run system also led to the closing of some facilities, the elimination of positions and, in some cases, higher fees for operators of small private planes and the users of smaller, more remote airports.

So far, the most popular model among U.S. backers appears to be Nav Canada. In Canada, air traffic control is governed by a not-for-profit corporation overseen by a board of directors. Most of the board members are elected by four major sectors with a stake in aviation: airlines, the government, general and business aviation representatives and the employees themselves through their bargaining units.

But replicating Nav Canada in the United States would be a challenge. The U.S. system is far larger, handles far more flights and takes in far more small airports than the systems in those other countries.

And there are important political hurdles in Washington that go beyond conventional party lines.

Putting a real plan in the air would mean going beyond broad strokes and raising tough questions for lawmakers. For instance, would the new system mean that smaller, less busy airports lose their controllers? That would draw a fight from pilots’ groups, farmers who use crop dusters and members of Congress who represent predominantly rural districts. Would a new group running air traffic operations have the power to unilaterally raise fees on passengers or airlines? Who would have the ability to appeal? And what would an appeal process look like?

Democrats on Shuster’s committee say they are open to talking about a new air traffic operation model, but they have yet to see any specific proposal.

“No one’s been able to define for me what the bigger problem is that would result in this particular solution,” said Washington Democrat Rick Larsen, the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee.

The full committee may be the place to work out the differences. After all, the panel overcame the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill this year to move an extension of highway program funding.

But Transportation has a heavy agenda next year, including reauthorizing highway programs and stabilizing the Highway Trust Fund. The more ambitious lawmakers get with air traffic control management, the more time they will need to bring any plan in for a landing.

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