ATC - A Balanced Perspective

May 11, 2006
Former president of the National Business Aviation Association and the Airports Council International sat with AIRPORT during the recent Jet Fuel Conference.

LAS VEGAS — The current U.S. aviation reauthorization discussion going on in Washington has as its focal point the future operation of the nation’s air traffic control system. The airlines are calling for a new funding formula that is more time-in-system based, with the intent to garner more dollars from business aviation. Attorney Jonathan Howe is the former president of the National Business Aviation Association and the Airports Council International, which represents airports worldwide. During the recent Jet Fuel Conference held here, Howe sat with AIRPORT

Since leaving ACI, Howe has been active in Washington as senior policy advisor for Zuckert, Scoutt & Rasenberger, L.L.P., and executive vice president for Farragut Interna-tional, L.L.C. Much of his time of late has been spent representing Airbus in resolving airport issues related to the A380 aircraft.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: As a starting point it would seem two arguments need to be considered. One comes from general aviation groups who ask how can FAA ask for more user fees when the agency doesn’t have a clear handle on its costs. Second is, technology moves too fast for government ever to be able to adapt. Your thoughts?

Howe: Those two things make the point. FAA really doesn’t have a handle, almost can’t have a handle, on that because they’re dealing with the appropriations process. It’s skewed by the fact that some Congressman comes in and puts something in the budget for a VFR tower or something that’s completely unnecessary. Then you have the unions coming and saying to Congress, we’re not going to let you shut down a facility to be more efficient. There’s the resistance from the controllers union about doing anything related to a space-based system, because it will mean eliminating jobs.

The trust fund is clearly inadequate to support FAA air traffic operations, let alone other things, and FAA simply doesn’t have the funds. The Administration is not willing to commit taxpayer funds for the amount that’s needed. So the only solution is going to be user fees of some sort.

What’s necessary, I think, is to get Congress out of the thing. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is probably not a bad example. MWAA now runs like other airport authorities with its own sustaining funds, and it has transformed those airports. There’s no reason in the world that the ATC system couldn’t function the same way.

AB: So, in lieu of privatization, a quasi-private agency? How is it funded?

Howe: Nobody is suggesting that this should be a private company operating for profit; that’s absurd. There’s always a requirement that the taxpayers are going to have to support because we need the ATC system for national defense and security. Various figures have been bounced around, but that number is probably about 25 percent. So, the users don’t have to pick up the whole tab. And therein, of course, lies that battle for what the formula should be.

I don’t profess to know exactly what the right formula is or the right mechanism is for collecting it. A good economist with good aviation advice could come up with a viable system.From a general aviation standpoint, it’s a drop in the bucket from what they’re having to pay for fuel.

User fees, I think particularly for business aviation, won’t have an adverse effect. In fact, I would argue that it could be beneficial; they are going to be constrained inevitably. Remember the battle we fought at Logan all those years ago. General aviation is going to get allocated slots; it’s going to get allocated airspace; it’s going to be given delays. Here’s a way, particularly for the high end of the market, to be able to essentially share the airspace, share the airports, have equal access.

AB: Why not a NavCanada-type of system?

Howe: Maybe that’s a perfectly good model; I don’t know. The naysayers will say, with some support, that as you look around the world it’s (privatization) got somewhat of a checkered history. NavCanada has worked pretty well, but the traffic handled is very low.

The best model, I think, is actually the German system. They consolidated all of their facilities; I think they have one air route traffic control center for the entire country. They wound up reducing airline costs dramatically while providing better service. The Australian system has worked reasonably well, too.

But the systems are so small when compared to the U.S., that I’m not sure you have a model. We have to create our own.

AB: Ultimately, is there a solution to how to fund the modernization of ATC and its future operation?

Howe: Start with the proposition that this thing’s never going to work unless they can have a non-appropriated source of funds. As long as they’re tied to Congress or the Administration’s budgeting process, they’re going to be strapped. They need a board with real power; the board of directors of the air traffic control system is a joke. They have no budget authority; no hiring or firing authority. You need an independent board of directors with an independent management team that functions like a private corporation, but with regulatory oversight plus, because they are a monopoly, there has to be some guidelines on how they’ll function.