ATC Privatization Fight Far From Over

July 14, 2016

Although Congress approved an extension of authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) via the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, the fight for air traffic control privatization is far from over.

James Burnley, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), told Airport Business in a phone interview July 13, that he sees the issue moving forward when Congress debates authorization again next year as the current bill runs the course of its 14 month extension.

“Big ideas and big reforms take time,” he said. “I think Chairman (Rep. Bill) Schuster is very clear in saying he intends to work on this next year.”

ATC privatization has been a hot issue since it was first introduced to Congress in early 2016 as part of the authorization bill sent forth in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill got hung up and delayed for months over the provision, while a version of authorization in the Senate sans the privatization effort passed with bipartisan support.

Burnley, who currently is a partner with Venable LLP, and represents American Airlines and Airlines For America — both of which support ATC privatization — said a big challenge with moving forward with the effort is a need to educate members of Congress about the benefits. He said the last big effort for privatization was during the Clinton Administration, but it failed despite support from the executive branch at that time.

There were some talks about it during the Bush Administration as well, but Burnley said there’s a lot more interest in taking the effort forward now, especially given the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is in support of the current effort, unlike in the past.

Canadian ATC moved to privatization in 1996 and Burnley said American operators see the benefits they have and are now “jealous.”

“They’re leading the battle to get reform now,” Burnley said. “Their members, the rank and file members, they feel the adverse effects of the annual federal budget process and how it has inhibited going to a GPS-based system from a radar World War II technology that we rely on today.

“Right now, we’re trying to run a 24-hour per day, seven-day-a-week business like a federal grant program."

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) praised the FAA reauthorization bill and also the decision to drop the ATC privatization.

“We are particularly appreciative that lawmakers rejected a divisive House proposal to create a corporatized air traffic control system. The cost for that victory was that many non-controversial provisions to enhance aviation safety, agency efficiency and our country’s economic competitiveness must wait until next year,” NATA President and CEO Thomas L. Hendricks said in a press release. “We will urge the next Congress to drop this divisive proposal in 2017 and approve legislation that represents consensus work of the House, Senate and aviation stakeholders.”

Bill wins mostly praise

The overall reauthorization bill is praised by Burnley, who said the 14 month timeframe is “far superior” to the string of short-term reauthorizations the agency was subject to in recent years and the impact it had on grant programs.

“We saw a few years ago without the passage of a multi-year reauthorization we ended up with 23 extensions and some of those extensions were for days or a week or two,” he said. “The folks who run the program to cut the checks can’t make the grants that airports have applied for and been approved for…that totally disrupts the process, planning and appropriations and that delays projects.”

The American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) said more needs to be done when the next bill comes around.

“Giving FAA and airports certainty over the next 14.5 months with AIP funding is welcome news, but with lines growing and travel reaching record levels it's disappointing that the measure won't empower airports to make more meaningful progress in building and upgrading their facilities through a long-overdue adjustment to the federal cap on local PFCs,” said Joel Bacon, executive vice president of government and public affairs, American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) in an emailed statement. “Airports need additional resources to meet increasing demands, and we'll be working hard to make sure that the next FAA bill prioritizes airport infrastructure development by modernizing the PFC and protecting AIP funding,”

Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) President and CEO Kevin M. Burke also praised the passage of the bill.

“Extending FAA authorization through September 30, 2017, provides U.S. airports with much needed certainty with steady funding through the Airport Improvement Program as Congress works towards a long-term reauthorization,” he said in a press release. “Because maintaining the safety and security of the traveling public is our top priority, we welcome efforts contained in this legislation to expand Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck enrollment and increase screening efficiency through a more effective allocation of TSA staffing.

“We will continue our work with Congress in the next session to give airports more control over local investment decisions so we can modernize airport infrastructure and enhance the passenger experience. We also remain fully committed to working with Congress and the TSA to ensure the safest, most efficient screening process possible.”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), also praised the bill, with President Mark Baker calling it, “the most significant legislative victory for general aviation in decades,” due to third class medical reform. Pilots who have held a FAA medical certificate by the time the bill is signed will never have to see a federal aviation medical examiner again.

“Under the old system, pilots flying on a special issuance medical were often expected to repeat the process year after year. They might have to send reams of documentation to the FAA for evaluation, repeat expensive and medically unnecessary tests for health conditions that are unchanged, and spend weeks or months grounded while they wait for the FAA to review their file,” Baker said in a press release. “These reforms put decisions about medical care back into the hands of pilots and their personal physicians, people who know them well and have an ongoing interest in their health and wellbeing.”