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"Aviation Debate Heats Up as Carriers Pan ‘Dysfunctional' FAA"

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Aviation Debate Heats Up as Carriers Pan ‘Dysfunctional' FAA
By Alan Levin  and John McCormick 
Bloomberg News

The simmering debate over whether to put U.S. air-traffic control under a 
nonprofit corporation burst into the open as an airline trade group accused the 
government of being “hopelessly dysfunctional” in a letter to a senior senator.

Airlines for America accused the Federal Aviation Administration of overstating 
its progress in modernizing the current flight-monitoring system and said the 
agency had repeatedly bungled technology programs. The lobbying organization 
represents carriers such as American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental 
Holdings Inc., though not Delta Air Lines Inc.

The system “is broken beyond repair within the constraints of government,” said 
the Airlines for America’s letter to Senator John Thune, a South Dakota 
Republican who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation 
Committee. The letter was obtained by Bloomberg News ahead of a congressional 
hearing Wednesday on the future of air-traffic control.

The trade group’s missive represented a significant escalation in the rhetoric 
over a controversial proposal endorsed by President Donald Trump to spin off 
the FAA’s air-traffic operations into a nonprofit.

At the Wednesday hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure 
Committee, Representative Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman, said the FAA 
has wasted a “shocking amount of taxpayer dollars” over the past three decades 
as it has tried to improve its technology and operations.

‘Broken’ Structure

“No other single infrastructure reform has as much potential to improve travel 
for the average American flier,” said Shuster, who has vowed to push 
legislation to separate air traffic from the FAA this year. “Although our 
aviation system is safe, the FAA structure and how air traffic is managed has 
been broken for decades.”

Air transportation was the top donating industry to Shuster in the 2015-16 
election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry 
and its employees gave his campaign $284,399 during the period.

A coalition of most large airlines, former FAA air-traffic officials and 
conservative think tanks argues that moving the agency’s nearly 15,000 
controllers into a federally chartered nonprofit corporation would free it from 
budget uncertainties and allow it to adopt new technology more swiftly. Dozens 
of other nations, including Canada and the U.K., have made similar moves in the 
past 20 years.

After years of opposition, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association 
union has expressed openness to a spinoff -- assuming employment and other 
certain conditions are met -- because it could provide a more steady source of 

‘At Risk’

Paul Rinaldi, president of the controllers union, told committee members that 
the current system in the U.S. is the “gold standard,” but “that status is at 
risk” if a more stable funding source isn’t found.

Representative Peter DeFazio, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, 
defended the current system and said the proposed changes would hurt safety and 
result in airlines ignoring air-traffic control for small, rural airports. 
“They don’t use them, they don’t care,” he said.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who didn’t testify at the hearing, wrote to 
Thune on Dec. 15 and said the agency had made significant progress in the 
modernization program known as NextGen. Huerta estimated the agency had already 
saved airlines, passengers and private pilots $2.7 billion in reduced delays, 
improved safety and fuel savings.

“Today, using the measurements upon which we and the aviation community agreed, 
NextGen is delivering real benefits,” Huerta said.

The agency projects that benefits will total $161 billion by 2030, Huerta said. 
He acknowledged that some air-traffic technology programs had stumbled, but 
said the agency had in recent years done a much better job of fielding new 
systems, such as text-messaging between controllers and pilots.

In its letter, the airline trade group said Huerta used overly optimistic 
estimates of benefits and understated actual costs.

Trump’s Budget

Trump, who called the current air-traffic system “obsolete” shortly after 
taking office, endorsed the proposal in his budget plan earlier this year. 
White House officials have portrayed it as an element of the president’s plan 
to channel $1 trillion toward rebuilding U.S. infrastructure.

Groups including private-plane operators, Democratic lawmakers and some labor 
groups have opposed the measure. They argue that a nonprofit corporation 
wouldn’t be responsive to smaller users of the system, such as rural airports, 
and say the current system functions well.

A coalition of seven other FAA unions and employee groups issued a press 
release denouncing the proposal to split air-traffic operations from the agency.

“FAA employees have decades of specialized experience maintaining the National 
Airspace System that cannot be replaced without great costs to American 
taxpayers and great risks to the flying public,” said Ron Consalvo, president 
of American Federation of Government Employees Local 200. The union represents 
employees at an FAA center for technical research in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Shuster last year pushed legislation to split off the air-traffic system from 
the FAA. It failed after some powerful Republican lawmakers and most Democrats 
balked. He’s planning to reintroduce the measure this year as part of 
legislation to set broad policy guidelines for the FAA, whose authorizing 
language expires in September.

Under Shuster’s plan, a board made up of airline and other aviation 
stakeholders would oversee a new air-traffic corporation. Instead of the 
current taxes on fuel and airline tickets, it would be funded by fees paid by 
aircraft operators. The FAA would continue to oversee safety and set aviation 
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