A proposal to peel air traffic control functions away from the government and put them in the hands of a non-profit corporation has prompted impassioned debate — and pitted Delta Air Lines against other carriers and the national controllers’ union.
Last week supporters of the idea in Congress pushed it onto the front burner by including it in a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
Whether it survives will affect air traffic control across the country, including the 2,500 or so flights every day at Hartsfield-Jackson International.
It could also affect as many as 40,000 FAA employees, including about 500 controllers who work at FAA centers at Hartsfield-Jackson and in Peachtree City and Hampton.
Proponents say air traffic control should not be subject to the whims of Congress and politics, which in recent years have left the FAA vulnerable to sequestration, furloughs and budget cuts.
They also say a non-profit corporation, with FAA oversight to assure safety, could also better pursue the delayed and overrun-plagued NextGen modernization project. NextGen aims to overhaul the system with satellite-based technology that allows for more precise and efficient routing.
“I believe taking an entity out of government is going to be a positive thing,” said U.S. Rep Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The FAA is incapable in its bureaucracy to advance” air traffic control modernization.
Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of trade group Airlines for America, said the 2013 sequestration, in which political deadlocks triggered automatic budget cuts, “really galvanized the aviation community in Washington to say, ‘You know, it just doesn’t make sense that an air traffic control system could be caught up to be treated like a political football.’”
She said the Shuster proposal would let the FAA “focus on safety and regulation, but (separate) air traffic control services, which is a 24/7 technology and services business.”
Fixing what’s not broken?
Opponents say the move would amount to privatizing a crucial national asset and function — one that works fine the way it is. Some in private aviation also worry it could drive up fees and create a system that primarily benefits big airlines and operators.
“ATC should remain part of the FAA. It’s an essential government function,” Delta CEO Richard Anderson recently told employees. He called the proposal a “controversial provision to outsource ATC to a private company and take it away from the FAA.”
The debate will heat up in coming weeks. FAA funding is set to expire March 31, and debate over the air traffic control provision could lead to a stalemate that prompts the need for a short-term funding extension.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union announced its support last week, saying the change would assure stable funding of both daily operations and modernization projects. It also said the bill “does protect our workforce,” including pay, benefits, retirement and collective bargaining rights.
The union said because the corporation would be non-profit, “it does make safety the top priority” with no financial motive to cloud priorities.
But other unions representing FAA safety inspectors and systems specialists says the proposal is too drastic.
“They’re trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said David Spero, regional vice president for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union. “The problem is that Congress isn’t properly funding the FAA… The system is not broke like this. It doesn’t require this kind of remedy.”
Atlanta a ‘major player’
Spero said Atlanta is a "major player in NextGen" and has already benefited from improvements the FAA has rolled out. "That may or may not be the case with a corporation," he said.
Douglas Lowe, a former Georgia president of that union,who now heads the Florida chapter, said uncertainty about the future is stressful. His union is opposed to privatizing the air traffic control system.
“I’ve got co-workers… they’re like ‘Man, what’s going to happen if we go private? How many of us are going to lose our jobs?’ There’s so many questions.”
Shuster said he expects up to 40,000 FAA employees would be moved into the new corporation, including controllers, technicians, managers and clerical workers. He says more than 50 other countries, including Canada, have a similar set-up.
FAA administrator Michael Huerta has said the agency is open to discussions on restructuring, but “the most important problems reauthorization should fix are budget instability and lack of predictability and flexibility to execute our priorities.”
Delta, which quit the Airlines for America trade group last year, is among a group of opponents including a coalition of consumer groups, the National Business Aviation Association, unions representing FAA engineers, safety inspectors, technicians and other workers, and several U.S. Senate members.
CEO Anderson is chairman of the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee said the project is already producing benefits.
‘Needs to be better’
But Anderson also acknowledged that “the system needs to be better… with greater focus on rapid implementation of NextGen technology.”
Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, Steve Dickson, said separating air traffic control from the FAA at this point would disrupt work on NextGen. He said such a move would be “reckless,” adding “we believe the more that is known of the details of this proposal the more opposition it will face.”
Dickson also said the U.S. air traffic system is many times larger than Canada’s and others cited by backers of the idea. The United States has the most air traffic in the world by far, with just New York city airports handling nearly as many flights as all of Canada.
Delta has recently improved its on-time performance, putting it close to the head of the pack among U.S. airlines, which may be influencing its position on air traffic control reform. While Delta often operates more than 80 percent of its flights on time, other major carriers continue to struggle.
“We looked internally and decided that we have a responsibility to make our airline run well for our customers and not blame it on other people,” Anderson said. “Delta is proof that the current system works.”