We Must Have Stable, Predictable Funding for the National Airspace System

We Must Have Stable, Predictable Funding for the National Airspace System

April 19, 2015  | ENO CENTER FOR TRANSPORTATION

The current funding uncertainty for our nation’s air traffic control system is unacceptable. As a result, NATCA is advocating for alternative funding models in order to maintain and advance the system’s safety and efficiency.

The lack of stable, predicable funding has led to serious problems at the FAA, including, but not limited to, the inability to finance long-term projects, develop the National Airspace System (NAS) for new users, and modernize our country’s aging infrastructure. The funding difficulties have also caused FAA to struggle to maintain proper resources and staff at our busiest air traffic control facilities.

NATCA believes that the FAA’s problems are not due to a lack of sufficient funding to the system. Rather they are the result of a process where the predictability of funding has been affected by short-term funding bills, government shutdowns, partial FAA shutdowns, threatened government-wide and FAA specific shutdowns, sequestration, and 23 authorization extensions.

The professionals NATCA represents want to perform their work to the best of their abilities, without the burdens of unpredictable funding. NATCA wants to find a solution to the problems that plague the FAA and our nation’s airspace system. The solution is stable, predictable funding for the NAS, which can be handled in the upcoming FAA Reauthorization Bill. We understand that addressing the funding problems may lead to the consideration of potential structural changes for the FAA. Any structural changes must be carefully examined to prevent unintended consequences that would negatively affect other aspects of the system. NATCA’s priority is to ensure that we continue to safeguard the world’s best air traffic control system during any transition, and that any potential change addresses the funding issue.

We look forward to working with Congress and other stakeholders to determine a solution that protects air traffic control and secures its future growth. But before NATCA can support any change, we must carefully examine all of the specifics. Details matter in this process. No system is like the United States’ and no model used elsewhere in the world is perfect, much less suitable for a system as large, complicated, and diverse as ours. Any new model must be mission driven and must ensure continued robust aviation sector growth throughout every segment of our industry and throughout the entire country. We must protect and strengthen our great national asset that is the air traffic control system.

NATCA believes any reform must include the following principles:

  1. Safety and efficiency remain the mission;
  2. Stable, predictable funding to 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 in the aviation system; and,
  4. A dynamic aviation system that continues to provide services to all segments of the aviation community, from commercial passenger carriers and cargo haulers, to business jets, to general aviation, from the major airports to those in rural America.

In my recent testimony before Congress about FAA Reauthorization and air traffic control reform, I provided members of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Aviation with an overview of alternative funding and structural models that could address the funding problem. Below are some of those alternatives followed by a brief description.

  • Status Quo Model: In this model, the FAA would remain as-is with the same funding and structure. Governance would remain within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • Enhanced Status Quo Model: In this model, governance would remain within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) but changes would be needed to address the manner in which the FAA is funded without changing it structurally.
  • Government Corporation or Independent Agency: This model would pull out the entire FAA, or parts of the FAA, and create a government corporation or independent agency. The government corporation model would require a Governing Board that includes stakeholders and government officials. This model would leave air traffic control functions within the government, but would remove them from the DOT.
  • Not-For-Profit Model: This model would require a Governing Board with stakeholders and government officials. An example of this would be NavCanada; its Board has three Directors elected by the Government of Canada. In this model, safety oversight and regulatory functions would remain within the FAA.

I invite you to read the full testimony for key points and details of the potential models, including advantages and disadvantages of each and how each would affect the air traffic system.

In our exploration of solutions to the funding problem we have also examined how other Air Navigation Services Providers (ANSPs) are structured, and how well they deliver air traffic control services. There has been significant discussion of the NavCanada model. While it may present benefits, NATCA is uncertain if that Canadian model is scalable to the size, complexity, and diversity of our airspace.

  • NavCanada: This privately owned, not-for-profit company established in 1996 works to control the operations of the air traffic control system. Its revenue source is user fees. The advantage of this system is its single-focused mission that prioritizes efficiency. The disadvantages were in its difficult and lengthy transition period. It may also be difficult to apply that model to one as diverse and complex as ours. For example, the United States controls 132 million flights annually (2012), compared to 12 million in Canada in an area a fraction of the size of the United States’ NAS. The United States 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 8 of the Top 10 busiest airports in the world, and 16 of the Top 30. Canada has one (1) – Toronto, which is number 15.
  • NATS in the UK: This private, for-profit corporation works with the government to create a public-private partnership. However, the profit motive remains. A December 2014 large-scale failure caused delays and cancellations. Some have attributed that incident to the cost-cutting efforts that have delayed upgrades. In addition, in the fall of 2014, NATS lost a bid to provide air traffic services for Gatwick Airport in the UK. Instead, the airport agreed to contract air traffic services to the German ANSP (described below).
  • Deutsche Flugsicherung in Germany: In Germany, the government now has control of air traffic functions, which were transferred to a state-owned corporation, called Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), in 1993. The system is funded through user fees, which are sufficient enough to continue with modernization efforts. Likewise, it has seen improved productivity and operational efficiency through investments in facilities and equipment. At the time, Germany’s federal budget constrained efforts to modernize the air traffic control infrastructure. According to a 2005 GAO study of ANSPs, Germany saw improved safety after its transition, although the report acknowledged that safety could not be adequately measured or forecasted at the time.

NATCA believes the U.S. must have a mission-driven model; we oppose any model that derives profit from air traffic control services.

We also believe it is critical that the specifics of any reform are vetted among all stakeholders. Not only do the principles need to be sufficient to meet the needs of the NAS, the details of any overhaul, regardless of how significant must as well.

More than 70,000 flights and over two million passengers are handled daily by air traffic controllers in the busiest and most complex airspace in the world. There are roughly 5,000 planes in the sky at any given moment. Domestic airlines served an estimated 756.3 million passengers in 2014. Every day, millions of individuals and businesses in the U.S. economy rely on the services provided by the complex web of aviation routes. Aviation drives nearly 12 million jobs that contribute $1.5 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product. We cannot afford a mistake that upsets this critical engine of economic growth. There cannot be a disruption in services during a transition.

The U.S. invented aviation, and we have the world’s safest system; it is incomparable, unequaled, and unrivaled by any other country. Our NAS is a national treasure. We must continue to grow aviation, allow integration of new users, and maintain a competitive edge to continue to be the leader in the global aviation community. There is too much at stake to continue on the current path of unstable, unpredictable funding.

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