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Looking for Investment in the Next Generation

Privatization backers of a corporation model such as the one used in Canada would help advance the technological upgrades required under the beleaguered NextGen air traffic control modernization program.

The Federal Aviation Administration has struggled to put in place its ambitious program, in part because airlines have been reluctant to invest in the new technology needed to allow planes to communicate with control towers. Airlines are not confident the investments will pay because implementation of the larger system still seems so far off.

With a leaner implementation process, airlines would have more incentive to make those investments early on, says Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research group. “And they’re also much more likely to know that the improvements are going to be made if they are the stakeholders who are running the air traffic control operation,” he said.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said he is impressed with the Canadians’ ability to invest in cutting-edge technology and with a management structure that gives all participants a say in decision-making.

“Anytime you can get the stakeholders who are subject-matter experts involved in making day-to-day decisions about running the operations, you’re going to get a better product,” he said.

Skeptics worry that moving to a new model now could consume the FAA’s entire focus and delay NextGen even more. And some believe the solutions to air traffic control problems are better solved by looking not at control towers, but at Congress. If lawmakers could pass regular spending bills giving the FAA access to the trust fund, the recent impetus toward privatization could diminish.

“The real question you need to decide up front or this will all be for naught is the funding question,” said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “It is a funding issue, first and foremost.”

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