House panel takes up privatizing air traffic control

Congressional Republicans are pushing an effort to partially privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, arguing that the existing system run by the Federal Aviation Administration uses outdated technology and the agency has repeatedly failed to modernize.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said Wednesday that he would make moving air traffic control from the government to a private, nonprofit entity a key part of the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill.

“Although our aviation system is safe, FAA’s structure and how air traffic is managed have been broken for decades. The decisions we make in the FAA reauthorization bill this year will either move us toward the 21st-century aviation system America needs or doom us to repeating the failures of the past over and over again,” he said in a committee hearing.

Shuster has an unlikely ally in the effort: the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The union has endorsed the nonprofit idea provided that its existing collective bargaining contract with the FAA carries over to the new entity.

Union President Paul Rinaldi argues a nonprofit entity would address one of its major concerns: Because the FAA is subject to the congressional appropriations process, its operations can be disrupted. “In the past five years FAA has experienced a partial shutdown, a complete government shutdown as well as numerous threatened shutdowns due to lapses or near-lapses in appropriations,” he noted.

Moving operations away from federal control would ensure more stable funding, he said, adding that that approach has worked in other countries. “In theory, this model could deliver results similar to those we have seen in Canada, where NAV CANADA has proved itself to be a safe and innovative air navigation service provider over the past two decades,” Rinaldi said.

The FAA for years has been attempting to modernize and replace its aging radar-based air traffic control system with a GPS-based system dubbed “NextGen.” Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said Wednesday that the agency had made progress in updating its technology but still lagged behind comparable systems in other countries.

“Despite these reforms … FAA’s total budget, operations budget and compensation costs have nearly doubled, while the agency has not realized corresponding cost and operational efficiencies. In addition, longstanding management problems have led to further delays with FAA’s efforts to deliver new technologies and major acquisitions,” Scovel said.

Legislation has not been introduced yet, but in the last Congress, Shuster proposed creating a federally chartered nonprofit air traffic control corporation. The nonprofit would be governed by a board consisting of people nominated by the transportation secretary, airline companies and the air traffic controllers’ and pilots’ unions.

Allowing the airlines to have a seat at the table alarms Democrats. Rep. Pete DeFazio,…

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