Senate Subcommittee Revisits Air Traffic Control Modernization

Hopes for air traffic control (ATC) reform, a proposal that Eno has investigated in the past, were dashed last Congress when attempts to spin off the ATC from the federal government failed. The issue resurfaced at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, September 24. Chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, Ted Cruz (R-TX), convened the hearing entitled “Improving Air Traffic Control for the American People: Examining the Current System.” The hearing was intended to examine improving and modernizing ATC.

Senator Cruz made it explicit that it was not a hearing on the Shuster proposal or privatization proposals of past Administrations. Yet the theme of ATC privatization, and the old fights that brought down the 2017 proposal, dominated the discussion.

The hearing brought together five witnesses who are among some of the key players in aviation:

  • Mr. Mark Baker, President, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA – written testimony here)
  • Mr. Ed Bolen, President and CEO, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA – written testimony here)
  • Captain Joe DePete, President, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA – written testimony here)
  • Ms. Trish Gilbert, Executive Vice President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA – written testimony here)
  • Ms. Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy, Airlines for America (A4A – written testimony here)

Baker, in both his opening remarks and his written testimony, reiterated AOPA’s longstanding opposition to ATC privatization. Bolen, whose organization has also previously opposed ATC reform, did not mention privatization in written testimony or opening remarks. He affirmed disapproval later in questioning, but he focused more on FAA’s progress on implementing NextGen and the benefits it’s already providing.

DePete’s and Gilbert’s remarks focused on the need for stable funding for ATC. With the 2019 shutdown fresh in memory, both said the need for stable funding, removed from the political process, would be necessary for safety and stability in the airspace. Neither group gave a full throated support of privatization but said they would be willing to support a proposal that met their organizations’ principles.

Pinkerton gave the most support to a reform effort, and also gave the most frustration with the recent progress of NextGen. While the FAA has been able to implement many of the key features, it has yet to operationalize much of the technology, for example, not yet providing aircraft the ability to fly more direct routes and save significant fuel.

The fact that FAA reauthorization is still four years away aside, ATC reform efforts face an uphill battle. First, the FAA, despite the shutdown, has made substantial progress on NextGen air traffic control technologies. While all panelists admitted there is much left to do, the frustration of little progress on NextGen was a major galvanizer of past efforts. The other factor is that the Aviation Funding Stability Act (and its House equivalent) has already been introduced and has unanimous support from the panel of witnesses. This bill would ameliorate the funding stability concern for government shutdowns (though not for authorization lapses), which is a primary concern of all interested parties.


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