U.S. air traffic control reform advocates have gotten a key endorsement from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who wrote that the Department of Defense is “supportive of possible privatization.” The letter, shared by House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa), acknowledged potential risks that privatization could create to national security, but said, “we have formed an ad hoc committee [composed] of Combatant Command and military department representatives to assess the current ATC relationship between DoD and the FAA within 120 days to delineate the linkages that would be necessary with a privatized ATC entity.”
The Defense Department had previously expressed substantial concerns about the security of such a proposal and appeared reluctant to back a change. But it also falls in line with the Trump Administration, which has strongly endorsed removing ATC from the FAA into an independent organization. In fact, the administration has gone so far as to say it is not looking for arguments for why not to change, but only suggestions about how to change.
The DoD letter was shared during a T&I Committee hearing today that took another look at the need to reform the nation’s air traffic control organization. During the hearing, proponents rehashed arguments of an unpredictable funding cycle and lack of progress on modernization, while opponents urged the committee to look at alternative fixes to ongoing funding concerns.
Shuster, a driver behind a proposal to carve ATC out of the FAA, tried to address concerns of the general aviation community over such a proposal, saying, “I am committed to make sure what we do protects small and rural communities and protects the general aviation community.”
He also noted he was “open to changes.” But he acknowledged that the proposal unveiled last year would serve as a framework and outlined similar goals: a user-funded independent, not-for-profit corporation that is managed by a board with a governance structure that is “right-sized and balanced.”
Shuster stressed that “it is time for reform that is truly transformational” and “the true risk lies in doing nothing.” ATC is not an inherently governmental function but a “technology service,” he added.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the T&I Committee and a chief opponent of the reform proposal argued that “cleaving” the FAA apart would not be an answer, but suggested that Congress look at options such as protecting the agency from the federal budget—taking it “off budget” and relying on the current tax system. These options could solve the uncertainties in fits and starts of the congressional budgeting cycle, he said. Further suggestions included shielding the FAA from interference from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Transportation.
DeFazio also questioned creating a system that would give airlines more control over the system, noting the airlines have had 36 computer outages since 2015, when the federal-run system has had only one—an outage that was deliberately created. Absent from the hearing today were airlines, which have pushed for reform and frequently testified on the issue in the past.
The FAA has done a lot of heavy lifting for modernization, with the ADS-B infrastructure installed, said Hartzell Propeller president Joseph Brown. He noted the aviation community is coming to a pivotal time, as operators equip to transition to ADS-B. Brown expressed concern that enduring the next five to seven years “distracted” by changing the management structure would introduce risk. Instead, he said he believes that the strengths of the system should be elevated, while specific weaknesses addressed.
Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel, meanwhile, reiterated findings that the FAA’s past reforms have not achieved expected outcomes. The agency’s budget, operations budget and compensation costs have nearly doubled, while cost reductions and efficiencies have not been realized. Scovel attributed this to funding uncertainties, but also to the FAA’s management.
Other reform proponents, including Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, and independent policy analyst Dorothy Robyn, who formerly worked in the Clinton Administration, restated their support. Robyn noted that the same conditions exist today as did two decades ago that drive a need for reform.
Poole tried to dispel the belief that the proposal is an airline initiative, saying the Business Roundtable in 2013 offered the concept. He also stressed that the reform proposal would not give the airlines control over the system.
In written testimony, NBAA disagreed. President and CEO Ed Bolen asked, “The question on the table is, who will effectively control this monopoly, and for whose benefit?…It sounds absurd; however, that is what the airlines are seeking to do: wrest control of the nation’s air traffic system from the public’s elected representatives and give it away, for free, to a private board.”
National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi, meanwhile, stressed that the controllers back a plan that would keep the system safe and provide a predictable stream of revenue. While Natca supported the independent ATC concept, Rinaldi said other reforms could also provide a predictable stream.
While controllers are offering support for an independent system, other FAA workers are not. Seven employee organizations wrote a letter reiterating opposition. “Quite simply, overhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic control from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth,” the letter states. “Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.”