Privatization of Air Traffic Control System Heats Up in Advance of FAA Reauthorization Bill

House Republicans have promised to unveil their bill to reauthorize the FAA in a coming weeks. A proposal to privatize the air traffic control system of the United States as well as stern words about the failure of the FAA to implement NextGen in timely and organized fashion is expected to be included. To add fuel to the fire, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General issued two reports calling the FAA’s management in general into question and its management of air traffic control operations in particular. On January 15, 2016, OIG issued a 33-page report, entitled “FAA Reforms Have not Achieved Expected Cost, Efficiency, and Modernization Outcomes.” The OIG notes that “costs continue to rise … operational productivity has declined … disappointing reform outcomes … resistant to change … unclear and inconsistent reporting … NextGen-critical programs remain over budget and behind schedule … unreliable cost and schedule estimates …” Characterizing the OIG Report as “scathing,” the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster saw the report as indicative of the need for extensive changes to the FAA. “This report shows that the FAA simply isn’t suited to successfully modernize our nation’s antiquated air traffic control system,” Shuster said. “The FAA remains a vast government bureaucracy, not a high-tech service provider. I’s clear from the DOT IG’s findings that we need transformational FAA reform if we are going to have a safe, efficient, 21st century aviation system.”

This is not a new issue. Whether the nation’s air traffic control system should be privatized has long been on the House T&I Committee’s To Do List. See, Has the Time Come to Privatize Air Traffic Control?
Moreover, on January 11, 2016, the OIG dropped another report “FAA Continues to Face Challenges in Ensuring Enough Fully Trained Controllers at Critical Facilities.” In that report, OIG concludes that the FAA is failing to ensure enough controllers are trained to fill vacancies left by retirees, costs have ballooned and air traffic control productivity has declined.

This is not to say that the FAA and its current Air Traffic Organization does not have its supporters. This past Monday, a new organization calling itself Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization (AAATP) held a press conference. The leaders of the new coalition believed that a move toward privatization would “lead to ‘increased safety risks,’ be ‘bad for workers and bad for consumers’ and is a ‘misguided ploy to disrupt a system that’s working well for the American people.'” At the press conference Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D- DC), who are both on the House T&I Committee, also answered questions. Del. Holmes Norton made it clear that while she is generally opposed to privatization of the Air Traffic Organization, “My basic complaint has been [there have been] no discussions [with Shuster] and thus no sense of what a bill would be,” she said. “I can’t tell you I’m opposed to X or Y.” Rep. Cummings was less sanguine, stating that the “system that we have now … has been a very strong, effective and efficient system.”

In response to the OIG’s withering criticism, the FAA stated that “The agency is now centrally managing staffing at the national level to maximize the overall benefits for all facilities. As part of that process, the FAA is expediting employee transfers from well-staffed facilities to those needing additional personnel.”

One must also ask whether the issue of management of the air traffic control system is a management issue or a technical issue related to the NextGen roll-out. For example, the OIG report advises that the FAA must “bring costs and schedules under control.” Thus, the implicit conclusion is that due to the FAA’s long term inability to attain its performance goals, air traffic control is ripe for privatization. However, what seems to be missing in the debate is how we got here in the first place. That is, the question that needs to be asked before there is any discussion about privatization of air traffic control is why has FAA been chronically late in implementing NextGen and other development programs. The answer may lie not in the lack of management, but in lack of technical insight and how programs are conceived and designed.

Since early roll out of new technology is one of the primary reasons why privatization is viewed as beneficial, it might be instructive to examine one of the foundations of NextGen program. Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) or the effort to provide signal integrity for GPS (satellite based navigation) with ADS-B operations. WAAS was conceived to provide signal integrity and enhance accuracy of GPS signals. The majority of the faults that degrade signal integrity come from the satellite segment of GPS, not the ground-based WAAS. These are systemic faults. The issue that the FAA has been dealing with is trying alleviate a systemic problem downstream from the source, that is on ground, which is difficult and might be impossible. This is a technical deficiency due to an incomplete conceptual design. This might be one reason for the many delays. According to GAO reports, it was 169 months behind schedule and $2,000,000,000.00 over costs. See also, Management Processes in U.S. Air Traffic Management Modernization: a Study of Global Navigation Satellite System Development. The point is that failures pointed out by the OIG may be better (and easier) addressed by strengthening the technical and engineering functions, without going through a radical restructuring or the air traffic system.

There are many factors to consider before radical changes to the existing structure are considered. Looking to the source of the issues raised by the OIG would seem to be the best strategy.

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