Director of Communications
National Air Traffic Controllers Association

The omnibus budget agreement approved by Congress and signed into law by the President last month allowed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety professionals, including the nation’s 14,600 air traffic controllers, to breathe a sigh of relief. The combined effect of sequestration in the spring of 2013 and the government shutdown in October created a tremendously negative and uncertain situation for FAA employees and air travelers who suffered through needless flight disruptions for one chaotic week in April 2013.

This temporary reprieve is not a substitute for a long-term funding solution for the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), however, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) began speaking out about funding issues early in 2013 and is carrying its message into 2014 to as many transportation venues as possible.

On January 14, aviation leaders gathered for the Transportation Research Board’s 93rd annual meeting Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of air traffic control and the aviation system in the United States.

NATCA President and a member of the Eno Board of Advisors Paul Rinaldi; Professional Aviation Safety Specialists National Vice President Rich Casey; Airlines for America Senior Vice President of Legislative and Regulatory Policy and a member of the Eno Board of Advisors Sharon Pinkerton; and Boeing Director of Strategy and Policy for Commercial Programs David Traynham spoke on a panel discussing the future of air traffic control in the United States. Steve Van Beek, Executive Director of Policy and Strategy at Leigh Fisher, moderated the panel.

“Today is different than when we were talking about FAA reform years back,” Rinaldi said. “Sequester is the game changer. When you have the FAA mandating bottom-line cuts and closure of 149 air traffic control towers, not because it would be safe and efficient, but because they need to save money, when you have the FAA delaying maintenance and not ordering back-up parts, not because its safe and efficient, but to save money, when you are sending 10 percent of the air traffic controllers home every day, not because it is safe and efficient, but to save money, that is a game changer for us.”

“You need FAA reform, and you need a sustainable funding system,” he added.

All the panelists were quick to dispel the notion that they were advocating for air traffic privatization. They repeatedly reiterated that what the air traffic system needs is reform and a focus on operations.

“We can talk about a lot of projects, we can talk a lot of NextGen shortcomings, and we can talk about a lot of successes that we have,” Rinaldi said. “I think [the FAA leadership] is doing the best job they can. It is a tremendous bureaucracy. I think every time we try to change, with all good intentions, we create more layers of bureaucracy.”

Traynham suggested that aviation reform needs to focus on governance. He then introduced the idea of a board of directors that is made up of various aviation stakeholders that sets goals for the organization.

“We are at a tipping point,” he said. “[Change] needs to be stakeholder driven, more than it is today.”

Rinaldi and the other panelists agreed that stakeholder involvement and agreement were paramount in ensuring the future success of the aviation system.

“What you are hearing now is a very important beginning of a dialogue,” Pinkerton said. “The stakeholders need to be on the same page.”

With the FAA reauthorization bill expiring in 2015, the panelists repeated that conversations such as this to continue.

“Anyone that is in the aviation system that thinks status quo is okay does not have that luxury anymore, and you would be naïve to say that,” said Rinaldi. “We have to move forward, but we have to be careful. We also have to keep in mind that we run the safest, most efficient, most complex aviation system in the world.”

Without a stable funding source for the long-term, NATCA members will continue to feel a tremendous sense of uncertainty. The threat of furloughs and potential job loss negatively affect morale for this highly specialized workforce, and there are the more tangible effects as well. Flight schedules have been disrupted, layers of safety protections have been peeled away, and the ability to maintain a fully staffed and trained workforce has been undermined.

The impacts of furloughs for air traffic controllers and other safety professionals were not temporary. The implementation of critical technology modernization programs like NextGen – an important upgrade in flight control – have been slowed as a result of the shutdown. When safety professionals were unable to work during the shutdown, vital infrastructure maintenance and improvements were put in jeopardy.

The 2013 hiring freeze imposed on controllers and the associated training delays caused by sequestration and the shutdown dealt a setback to staffing levels and the skill levels of the controller corps. This could not have happened at a worse time for the NAS, which is already managing a delicate balance of air traffic controllers who are fully certified, those who are in training, and those who are eligible to retire. The NAS is only just adjusting to the mass exodus during the 2006 to 2009 period, and the subsequent mass hiring. At present, 1,800 controllers are in training, and over 3,000 are eligible to retire. This imbalance means the NAS is facing a critical staffing problem right now.

Even with the FAA beginning to hire again, NATCA is concerned about the agency’s ability to keep hiring in pace with attrition.

If nothing is done to alter the funding equation, more damage could be done. Aviation is too important of an economic engine to be subjected to these kinds of recent disruptions. It contributes $1.3 trillion annually to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and supports more than 10 million jobs. That kind of economic activity cannot and should not be subjected to repeated budget crises. In order to grow, modernize, and help improve the U.S. economy, aviation, and more specifically the air traffic control system, the NAS needs a stable source of long-term funding.

Between the FAA partial shutdown in 2011, sequestration, and the October 2013 government shutdown, we believe the federal government has reached a critical juncture. It has never been more important to engage in a conversation with lawmakers and other policymakers about how the NAS can be removed from the chronic budget battles on Capitol Hill to protect the aviation assets of America.

Air traffic control is a team sport and when nearly half the team is missing from the field, the team gets worn down. The aviation industry has been put through the wringer, and we no longer have the luxury of saying everything is fine.

We believe a debate regarding how to establish a stable funding system for aviation is a natural next step for lawmakers. A broad agreement exists within the aviation community that positive changes need to be made.

To be clear, NATCA is not signing up for privatization of our nation’s air traffic control system. Nor are we wedding ourselves to a specific answer. What we are saying is this: let us talk about a better way. Where we are now is not where we should be.