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Support Soars for Modern Air Traffic Control System

Feb 12, 2016

A plan to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system, encouraging innovation while strengthening safety oversight, is gaining speed, with its approval this week by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The committee on Thursday reported out H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The bill would bring the air traffic control system (ATC) into the 21st century by creating a federally chartered, non-profit organization to operate it. With this new structure, the FAA could focus its energies on making a safe system even safer.

Key to this modernization plan is expediting the adoption of the satellite-based ATC technology known as NextGen. The FAA’s efforts to move to NextGen have experienced extensive delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, casting doubt on its ability to handle growing demand.

 “The AIRR Act provides the transformational reform necessary to bring our antiquated air traffic system into the modern era, and allow America to lead the world again in aviation,” said Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) following the committee’s approval. (News release)

Other countries have made this kind of governance change with great success, The Washington Post said today in an editorial, “The government should get out of the air traffic control business,” that also noted the FAA’s current difficulties:

[Countries] are turning away from this statist model. Canada spun off its system, Nav Canada, in 1996, to a private [non-profit] entity funded by user fees. Britain privatized in 2000. Australia and New Zealand are also part of the movement; ditto Germany and Switzerland, lest anyone think it’s English-speaking nations only.

In all of these countries, safety and innovation have stayed the same or improved, which is not surprising, as the new model separates regulation from operation. The U.S. approach, by contrast, keeps those conflicting roles within the same authority. Also, the FAA remains subject to the vagaries of congressional politics, with all the micromanaging and stopgap funding that implies. As a result, a $40 billion FAA modernization program is woefully behind schedule.

Support for the move is growing. A committee hearing this week heard from Paul Rinaldi, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (testimony), and Nick Calio of Airlines for America, representing major airlines (testimony). Business Roundtable also sees value in a modern ATC system will boost business, economic growth and job creation.

As Calio put it in his opening statement:

[Modernization] efforts will yield immense benefits for air travelers, shippers, airlines and the communities that they serve, aviation community employees and the national economy. Acceptance of the status quo, in sharp contrast, would consign those who depend on civil aviation to the limitations, frustrations and inefficiencies that we have repeatedly experienced with air traffic management over the last few decades. That would be an intolerable outcome for a country that has historically been regarded as the worldwide leader in aviation.