Expert Working Group Unveils Outline For Future Of U.S. Air Traffic Control

Expert Working Group Unveils Outline For Future Of U.S. Air Traffic Control

March 16, 2015  | ENO CENTER FOR TRANSPORTATION

Washington, DC – The Eno Center for Transportation NextGen Working Group – led by Former Senator Byron Dorgan and Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Jim Burnley – has released a Statement of Principles designed to give lawmakers a workable starting point as they aim to modernize the nation’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system in the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization.

The FAA has created the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) that will – among other things – move U.S. air traffic control from outdated radar technology to a modern satellite-based system in order to help ensure the continued safety of our aviation system. The 10 principles the Eno NextGen Working Group recommends address a wide range of priorities for a successful NextGen implementation including protecting the diversity of airspace users; ensuring a consistent and reliable means of funding ATC operation and modernization; allowing the FAA to concentrate more on safety; and reforming budget and procurement procedures. (complete list below)

“As a neutral non-profit entity, Eno is ideally suited for bringing stakeholders together to confront challenging transportation policy issues,” says Eno President and CEO Joshua Schank.” After more than a year of hard work and honest conversation, we are proud to present principles that can form the basis for real reform of our national air traffic system’s governance and funding.”

Formed July 2013, Eno’s NextGen Working Group brings together academics, former government officials, unions, and industry leaders representing airlines, airports, manufacturers, private operators, pilots, controllers, and the business community to discuss the future of U.S. ATC. Together, these experts and stakeholders – recognizing an urgent economic need to bring the United States’ ATC system into the 21st century – are overseeing research, evaluating past attempts at reform, exploring successful ATC models in other countries, and considering fundamental changes both to financing and governance structures in the interest of keeping up with essential advancements in technology.

“Reform of our air traffic control governance and funding structure is long overdue. To continue to improve safety, upgrade technology and increase efficiency for passengers and the aviation community in a cost effective way, we need a new structure for the air traffic control system,” says Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Jim Burnley.

Former Senator Byron Dorgan adds, “Both the 2013 budget sequestration and government shutdown exposed the true vulnerability of our nation’s air traffic control operations. The time is right to consider real reform that would provide consistent, uninterrupted funding for the NextGen system, not only in managing day-to-day operations but also in paying for essential upgrades over time.”

Today’s announcement marks the NextGen Working Group’s first document release. The group aims to have its complete research and consensus-based policy recommendations available before Congress starts working on the FAA reauthorization. The current law expires in September at the end of the fiscal year.

Principles for Air Traffic Control Reform

  1. Promote growth and accommodate diversity in the national airspace system

Access to the national airspace system is crucial for the economy of the nation as well as of many small communities around the country. General and business aviation represent an important share of the traffic in our airspace and make a vital contribution to the national economy. Both domestic and international air carriers depend on an efficient system, and government is also a critical user. Effective representation of all airspace users in the governance structure of the air traffic control provider is essential to ensure that stakeholders’ interests are safeguarded. Congress and the federal government should also continue to play a substantial role in promoting the growth of the entire aviation system to ensure that adequate capacity exists, delays are reduced, and access is maximized.

  1. Ensure a coherent, stable, and predictable funding structure for air traffic control

The current funding mechanism for air traffic control provided by annual appropriations is not an effective mechanism for a highly technological and capital intensive service business. Air traffic control should be removed from the federal budget process and should not be dependent on annual appropriations. This would insulate air traffic control from events like the budget sequester and federal government shutdown of 2013.

  1. Establish a self-sustaining funding mechanism for air traffic control

The current funding system, which is based on a mix of taxes and general revenues, should be replaced, to the extent possible, with direct payments to the air traffic control provider. This funding method would create a self-sustaining system and would be in line with international principles. It would also improve the link between the services provided and the revenues coming in, providing an incentive for efficiency. Additionally, allowing all sectors of aviation to be a part of its governance will allow them to be more engaged in the system’s modernization.

  1. Enable an efficient procurement system for air traffic control modernization

Despite 1996 legislation to exempt the FAA from many federal procurement rules, today’s FAA procurement system substantially mirrors that of the rest of the federal government and remains inefficient. These procurement rules and procedures are not effectively designed for the highly technological ATC system, and hinder the system’s modernization. Air traffic control modernization must include improvements to procurement processes.

  1. Enable bonding authority

The air traffic control provider will need the ability to issue debt, including bonding authority to aid in long term financing of capital expenditures. The ability to issue bonds, backed by the user-based revenues streams, will ensure better capital planning and will help modernization efforts like NextGen to be more effectively managed and implemented.

  1. Include aviation stakeholders in the governance of the air traffic control provider

Stakeholders must play a strong role in governance of the air traffic control provider in order for it to be responsive to the needs of its users and other aviation stakeholders. This involvement would promote a system that is more attentive to the stakeholders’ needs. This could be a more effective way of prioritizing investments. The federal government will have a role in the governance structure as a guarantor of the public interest.

  1. Enhance and improve the Federal Aviation Administration’s role as the safety regulator

The United States has the safest airspace system in the world. The FAA should retain its role as the safety regulator of the airspace system after reform to ensure that it will continue to be the safest in the world. This will bring the FAA in line with the rest of the administrations within the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regulate safety but do not operate the services. In addition, existing rules and procedures should be reviewed, streamlined, and improved, including expediting safety regulatory procedures. Separation of provision of air traffic control services from safety regulation will also follow international recommendations, allowing each organization (the FAA and the air traffic control provider) to focus on their core responsibilities and avoid potential internal conflicts of interest.

  1. Improve the certification processes at the Federal Aviation Administration

A critical component of FAA’s continuing role as government safety regulator is the certification and approval processes of aviation products, flight standards, and people. Effective and timely certification processes are essential for the industry and the nation’s economy, and delays in the approval processes can be extremely costly and disruptive to the successful implementation of NextGen, third class medical reform, updating the existing general aviation fleet with modern equipment that will improve flight safety, among other concerns. Moreover, the current processes are unable to keep pace with the rapid advancements in technology and must be reformed, quickly, in order for the national aviation system to continue to be the best and safest in the world. The FAA culture, as well as the regulatory and certification processes, especially in the area of general aviation, need to evolve in order to better keep pace with changes in technology.

  1. Facilitate robust Research & Development for air traffic control

The FAA, with the support of NASA, has sponsored laudable Research & Development (R&D) to improve the safety and efficiency of our skies. Like other areas within the agency, however, this work is constrained by federal budget and procurement procedures that delay projects and increase their costs. R&D should be freed of such constraints.

  1. Create and carefully implement a plan to ensure a seamless transition to a new system

The transition to any new approach for financing and governance must be thoughtfully and meticulously implemented. Every effort must be made to avoid any adverse effects on the day-to-day functioning of the air traffic system during, or subsequent to, the transition. An important component is to provide as stable and secure a working environment for the employees of the agency as possible, including the continuity of the collective bargaining relationships and processes for employees who currently are represented. The transition in the financing should be done in a way that avoids any significant changes in the financial burdens of the users of the system. Sufficient time must be given to all stakeholders to prepare for the new operating environment.

Disclaimer: While we succeeded in reaching a broad consensus on the need for air traffic control reform, as is often the case with an exercise like this, these principles, in whole or in part, may not necessarily represent the views of all who participated.

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