Air Traffic Control – Who Lost the Debate in Congress?

Sam Whitehorn

The effort in Congress to modernize, reform, or privatize the Federal Aviation Administration (depending upon your viewpoint) is over for now.

Airplane flying over air traffic control tower. LAX, California

There is little doubt that after an arduous two-year legislative battle, the proponents of structural change — particularly the airlines and NATCA — lost big time.

But does that mean that the opponents of significant change — particularly the business jet lobby and general aviation — won big time? The answer to that question is an emphatic “no.”

The sobering fact is that both sides lost. They lost because the point of Air Traffic Control (ATC) Reform should have been to foster a much-improved air traffic system, a goal that got hopelessly lost in the debate over reorganization, restructuring, and improvement of the agency. Having studied ATC privatization/reform for over 20 years, starting in my previous role as staff director for the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, what I learned from the very beginning, and believe even more emphatically today, is that our system of managing the safe movement of aircraft through our increasingly congested skies needs to be changed. It needs to be modernized on a much faster and steadier pace than it is today. Both the direct users of the system and the public should demand that our ATC have the latest and safest technologies available. It’s that simple.

Not even the harshest opponents of ATC reform/privatization can or, instead, should argue that the system does not need to be fixed. If we could just put aside the ridiculously inflamed rhetoric for a minute (or even better for a year) and work through what the problems are, we might miraculously find some consensus. Starting from a standard set of data points, we might still diverge on the management/structure, but in the end, we would have to agree that change is needed.

We went through this same process in 1996 as part of the debate over the FAA. But we didn’t end the discussion by telling the Clinton Administration “hell no” (except on privatization – and trust me, I know what that price was back then). Instead, we regrouped to negotiate a bill between the Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, which changed many things within the FAA, from air traffic control to procurement. Did it work? Yes, it did, and the process improved. Did it work well enough? No, it did not, there is more work to be done to fix and upgrade this system.

Most importantly, the current budget process, while fully supporting the requests for funding made every year, does not lend itself to the types of long-range planning and financing needed to upgrade technologies. The industry needs to think hard about how best to get those technologies fielded more quickly. We cannot afford to be bogged down in arguing for ten more years, while FAA continues to put in new technologies at a pace that they know, and we know, needs to be faster and more efficient.

Look at the growth in aviation– from new technologies being deployed by the airlines and by the airports! All of it is designed to move people more efficiently. Our ATC system will fall further behind unless the entire industry recognizes the need to change, identifies the problems and collectively develops solutions.