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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
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.
“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
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, 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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