US President Donald Trump has announced his intention to spin off US air traffic control within budget plans that were released on March 16.
President Trump had already expressed support for changes to the government’s air traffic control system after meeting with airline and airport executives at the White House in January.
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The proposal which is part of Trump’s $1.2 trillion discretionary budget blueprint for the year starting October 1 proposes separating the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and transforming it into an independent, non-governmental organisation would guarantee more efficiency and and innovation while maintaining safety. “This would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall,” budget documents state.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents the FAA’s 14,000 controllers, has also backed a previous legislative bid with union officials pointing to controller understaffing as a direct consequence of the slow progress of the NextGen modernisation effort.
That modernisation programme has delivered $2.7 billion in benefits to airlines and other users of the system over a seven-year period and the FAA expects to produce another $13 billion in benefits by 2020, the FAA chief Michael Huerta noted earlier this year.
The move to spin off ATO operations was the subject of a legislative bid last year. The House transportation committee approved an aviation bill sponsored by its chairman Bill Shuster that would have removed air traffic operations from the FAA and placed them under the control of a private, non profit corporation.
Opposition within the House against ceding Congressional oversight of the air traffic system to a private entity prevented the bill moving to a vote. Business aircraft operators, private pilots and small and medium-sized airports opposed the legislative bid on the grounds that airlines could dominate the new organisation and that smaller airspace users will have to bear higher costs for receiving reduced services.
The impact on government spending is not currently clear as the future corporation is expected to be funded by the user fees corresponding to the federal taxes that airlines already pay the government. The precise level of fees and who would pay them must still be determined.
Welcoming the budget, Shuster commended President Trump for calling for restructuring the role of the FAA. “This budget takes the next step in what our committee produced last year – separating the air traffic control function from the federal government and establishing an independent, not-for-profit organisation to provide this service.
“The inclusion of this good government infrastructure proposal shows that the president is truly focused on changing the way Washington works. By removing the ATC function from the FAA, Americans will see a more efficient system, flight times decrease, on-time departures increase, emissions reduced, and 21st century technology deployed to guide our planes from gate to gate. On top of that, the FAA will be able to focus on safety and robust oversight of the new not-for-profit service provider.”
NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said the US controllers’ union would carefully evaluate the president’s proposal and that to support any reform proposal, it must meet core principles of: protecting the men and women who ensure the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS) in their employment relationship, including their rights and benefits; ensuring that safety and efficiency remain the top priorities; providing a stable, predictable funding stream that adequately supports air traffic control services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernisation, preventative maintenance, and ongoing modernisation of the physical infrastructure; and ensuring continued service to all segments of the nation’s diverse aviation community.
“NATCA opposes operating the NAS based on a profit motive. We also oppose any proposal that would maintain the unstable, unpredictable status quo,” he said, adding, “as the Administration and Congress consider air traffic control reform and work to provide long-term reauthorisation for the FAA, and therefore address the problem of stop-and-go funding, it is important that all stakeholders within the NAS collaborate to ensure that the United States remains the world leader in aviation. We are encouraged that a discussion on the future of aviation and the NAS is a national priority. NATCA will continue to seek to be part of the solution to the problems caused by an unstable, unpredictable funding stream.”
“This is a bold step that will lead to the governance and funding reforms needed to move our air traffic control infrastructure into the 21st century,” said Nicholas Calio, chief executive of the US airline industry group A4A. “This approach gets politics out of the way by guaranteeing a predictable and reliable funding stream that allows for long-term capital improvements that will be used to modernise the ATC system.”
Meanwhile, the Alliance for Aviation Across America – a coalition supports the interest of the general aviation community – stated: “It is unfortunate that the president’s budget includes a proposal, pushed by the big commercial airline lobby, to privatise and give control over the ATC system to the big airlines, at the expense of the farms, businesses, and other important interests located in small towns and rural areas across America.
“This proposal would allow certain private interests to make critical system decisions ranging from infrastructure funding, to taxes and fees, according to their own best interest rather than that of the public. Already we see that privatised systems in other countries are run to the detriment of smaller operators and communities. We urge Congress to retain oversight of the national air traffic control system to ensure that it operates in the best interest of the public.”
Mike Perrone, national president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO (PASS), the union that represents 11,000 FAA technical employees said his membership was extremely concerned at the prospect of splitting the FAA apart, claiming it would threaten the jobs of thousands of ATO employees who certify, maintain and ensure the safety of the US aviation system.
“Privatising the air traffic control system is a risky and unnecessary step at this pivotal point in the modernisation of the US aviation system. True progress is being made in development and implementation of critical technology and systems through the initiatives and projects associated with NextGen. Breaking apart the system at this point would reset the clock on progress and threaten this country’s status in the aviation community.”
According to the Washington Post, the US transportation department’s budget would shrink by 13 per cent. In addition to moving air traffic control outside government, it would push responsibility for many transit and other projects to localities.
As well as eliminating funding for many new transit projects and support for long-distance Amtrak trains, it would also cut $499 million from the TIGER grant programme, which has funded dozens of road, transit and other projects. It would also eliminate $175 million in subsidies for commercial flights to rural airports. More detailed budget information will be released in May.
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