Imploring Senate Committee to Guarantee Stable Funding, Not Just Address FAA Structure

On May 19, I testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at its hearing on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization, with a focus on air traffic control modernization and reform. My message was direct: the lack of stable or predictable funding for the National Airspace System (NAS) is unacceptable, and a major change is needed in order to maintain and advance the system’s safety and efficiency.

My testimony outlined existing problems at the FAA, including repeated interruptions to the funding stream and their negative effects on the NAS. The upcoming FAA Reauthorization bill must deal with funding issues in order to safeguard a safety-focused operational system that serves the nation’s transportation and economic needs every hour of every day.

We understand that addressing the funding problems may lead to an examination of potential structural changes for the FAA. But we implored the committee not to limit its focus. Any change that fails to guarantee a stable, predictable funding stream could create new unintended consequences without solving the true dilemma.

Here are the principles NATCA requires for any reform:

1.     Safety and efficiency must remain the top priorities;

2.     Stable, predictable funding must adequately support air traffic control services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernization projects, preventative maintenance, and ongoing modernization to the physical infrastructure;

3.     Robust and continued growth of the aviation system is ensured; and

4.     A dynamic aviation system continues to provide services to all segments of the aviation community—from commercial passenger carriers and cargo haulers, to business jets and general aviation, from major airports to those in rural America.

I also provided committee members with an overview of alternative funding and structural models that stakeholders, think tanks, and others have been exploring. I provided key points about those alternative structural models and the effects these changes would have on air traffic control. I also included findings from stakeholder examinations regarding how other Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) are structured, and how well they deliver air traffic control services.

I want to emphasize that NATCA cannot endorse a particular system without knowing all of the details and ensuring a seamless transition. I did make it clear, however, that NATCA opposes any overhaul that creates a private, for-profit entity to oversee air traffic control services.

Here are several other key points I made in my testimony:

  • For years the FAA has faced an unstable, unpredictable funding stream, and each interruption has negatively affected all aspects of the FAA. The FAA has had to spread its resources thinly between fully staffing its 24/7 operation, modernizing the airspace, and performing the daily maintenance required to sustain an aging infrastructure. When sequestration cuts were implemented, the situation became even more dire. The FAA was forced to furlough its employees, including air traffic controllers, place preventative maintenance on hold, and consider closing federal and contract towers, which would have curtailed air traffic services in smaller markets. The cuts also prevented the FAA from hiring new trainees to replace the certified controllers who retired, adding stress to an already understaffed workforce. Sequestration cuts did not affect the FAA’s budget for fiscal years (FY) 2014 and 2015, but the cuts will return in FY 2016.
  • While there may be benefits to the Canadian model, NATCA is uncertain if that model is scalable to the size, complexity, and diversity of our airspace. For example, the U.S. controls 132 million flights annually (2012), compared to 12 million in Canada in an area a fraction of the size of our NAS. The U.S. has 21 centers, compared to seven in Canada, and 315 towers compared to 42. According to Airport Council International’s Top 30 Busiest Airports in the world (based on aircraft movements), the U.S. currently has eight of the top 10 busiest airports in the world, and 15 in the top 30. Canada has one: Toronto, which comes in at number 16.
  • While considering possible reforms, we must protect and strengthen the national asset that is our National Airspace System. We must continue to develop an environment that encourages the growth of the aviation sector, allowing the integration of new users, new innovation, and new technology, all while continuing to maintain our global leadership. There is much at stake. We must find a way to improve the system without causing unintended consequences that could set us back. The U.S. has always led the world in aviation, and we must continue to do so.

We all have a stake in the NAS. It’s an economic engine for this country, contributes $1.5 trillion dollars to the Gross Domestic Product, and provides over 12 million American jobs. We invented aviation in this country. It’s an American tradition. And over the last 100 years, we have dreamed, innovated, and implemented the unbelievable in aviation. We run the largest, safest, most efficient, most complex, most diverse system in the world. Our system is incomparable, unequaled, and unrivaled by any other.

But our NAS is being shortchanged. We need to make appropriate changes to secure a stable funding stream for aviation. We need to establish a proper governance structure for our NAS—a structure that is not laden with bureaucratic lines of business or burdened with bureaucratic process. We need a nimble, dynamic structure. We need a structure that will allow us to grow aviation in this country and not shrink it. We need a structure that will allow us to modernize our facilities, equipment, procedures, and technology in a realistic timeframe. We need a structure that will give us the competitive edge to ensure our future leadership in the global aviation community.

Details matter in this process. Our goal is to maintain and improve upon our high standard. However, fundamental change is needed to do so. The current problems may not be allowed to continue. NATCA looks forward to working with Congress and other stakeholders to find a solution that provides a stable and predictable funding stream while protecting the air traffic control system and its future growth.

NATCA’s full written testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee can be found here. 

Watch the video of the full hearing here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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