Congressional Stalemate Persists over Air Traffic Control Privatization as FAA Reauthorization Deadline Approaches

The integration of cutting-edge aviation technology such as commercial drones and the modernization of our national airspace system are just a couple of the pressing aviation issues hanging in the balance this summer as Congress seeks common ground on FAA Reauthorization legislation.  

With the July 15, 2016 expiration of the current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization legislation rapidly approaching, congressional disagreement over a plan to privatize Air Traffic Control is preventing bicameral endorsement of a path forward.  
 
On April 19, 2016, the Senate passed its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization legislation by an overwhelming margin of 95-3 (initially introduced as S. 2658 and later merged into H.R. 636). The Senate’s FAA legislation would reauthorize FAA programs through September 2017, and would focus billions of dollars and government resources on some of the most pressing aviation issues including the promotion of widespread commercial drone operations, bolstering airport security, and adding new safety systems in private aircraft. However, the Senate’s FAA Reauthorization legislation is arguably more notable for what it would not do than for what it would do. 
 

Namely, it would not privatize Air Traffic Control.  In the House of Representatives, the pending Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 would completely overhaul domestic Air Traffic Control operations by moving the operations out of the FAA to a non-profit corporation. If successful, the House bill would place approximately 38,000 Air Traffic Control employees, and the management of the safest national airspace system in the world, in the hands of a private corporation.  

Though the Senate and House bills share many commonalities, each passing day without congressional consensus brings mounting fears that the current efforts to modernize American aviation will devolve into an endless string of short-term extensions. The July 15 deadline has industry insiders calling for the House to adopt the Senate’s more measured approach to reauthorization and to table the Air Traffic Control overhaul until 2017.  

Privatization of the United States Air Traffic Control System Hits Roadblock in the U.S. Senate

Less than a month ago, it seemed clear that privatization was the wave of the future for the United States Air Traffic Control System (“ATC System”).  On February 19, 2016, the United States House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (“H.R. 4441” or “FAA Reauthorization Act”), the centerpiece of which was the establishment of an independent, nonprofit, private corporation to modernize the U.S. ATC System and provide ongoing ATC services.  The benefits of such “privatization” were seen to include less expense, less backlog in the implementation of air traffic control revisions, in essence, greater efficiency in the development, implementation, and long-term operation of the ATC System.  Central questions still remain, however, concerning the synergy of a private corporation’s management of the ATC System with the overarching statutory regime by which it is currently governed.  

H.R. 4441 does not directly address the issues of: (1) whether the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) still have the final determination as to whether a change in the ATC System recommended by the corporation is “safe,” or will that determination also be left in private hands; (2) will the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), applicable to the analysis of the environmental impacts of projects sponsored by a federal agency, still apply to changes in the ATC System effectuated by a private corporation; and (3) will federal preemption of local airport noise and access restrictions, conclusively established in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq. (“ANCA”), apply to determinations by a private corporation?  While many questions are left to be clarified, H.R. 4441 does explicitly answer at least one – it provides that federal preemption of local regulation of airline “prices, routes, and service,” originally established in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, 49 U.S.C. 41713(b), will remain in place.  Finally, judicial review under the Act is applied differentially, depending on whether a challenge is to FAA’s grant of a proposal, or its denial.  FAA’s approval of a proposal made by the corporation would be subject to the “abuse of discretion” standard, and the deference normally accorded to a governmental entity charged with the administration of a program established by Congress, which is difficult to overcome.  FAA’s denial of such a proposal, however, likely to be challenged only by the corporation, would not be subject to such deference, making the path to a reversal and ultimate approval of the corporation’s recommendations smoother.  

Apparently, the Senate Commerce Committee recognized H.R. 4441’s many unanswered questions, as did the full House of Representatives which has held up approval and caused the House to enact an extension of the FAA’s funding reauthorization to July 15, 2016.  The Senate reacted by passing its version of H.R. 4441 without the privatization provision.  This means that passage of the FAA Reauthorization must wait first until the issue is resolved internally in the House of Representatives.  Even if H.R. 4441 should emerge from the full House including the privatization provision, unless the full Senate should see fit to agree, a Conference Committee will be required and funding for the FAA could be delayed well past the current July 15, 2016 deadline.  
 

SCAG's Regional Transportation Plan Falls Down Hard on Aviation Policy

The recently published Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”) Draft Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, Sustainable Communities Strategy (“Draft RTP”) is a study in contrasts. The Draft RTP is meant to be a roadmap to “increasing mobility for the region’s residents and visitors.” Draft RTP, p. 1. Its “vision” purportedly “encompasses three principles that collectively work as the key to our region’s future: mobility, economy and sustainability.” Draft RTP, p. 1. SCAG’s jurisdiction falls largely into compartments: (1) surface transportation such as roadways and rail; and (2) aviation. SCAG has funding authority over the former, but none over the latter.

The purpose of the Draft RTP is to portray transportation from a broader regional, rather than merely local, perspective. On the one hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of surface transportation growth estimates, trends and proposed policies for the Southern California Region to the year 2035 contains relatively sophisticated and substantially complete analysis and projections that meet its goals. On the other hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of aviation trends and policies for meeting airport demand is reminiscent of a high school science project.
 

For example, the Draft RTP anticipates that, after the “urban capacity constrained airports of Los Angeles International (“LAX”), Bob Hope, Long Beach and John Wayne Airports (sic)” all meet their “defined legally allowable or physical capacity constraints,” the remainder of the demand will be served at “suburban airports with ample capacity to serve future demand, including Ontario International, San Bernardino International, March Inland Port, Palmdale Regional, Southern California Logistics and Palm Springs airports.” Draft RTP, p. 58. While SCAG is correct about the availability of unused capacity at Ontario International (“ONT”) (which is at its lowest passenger level since 1987 despite ample facilities including a new, unused, terminal), SCAG is flat wrong in the assumption that: (1) the other named airports actually have usable capacity; and (2) the “remainder of the demand” will automatically be siphoned off to airports more remote than ONT (which is actually an urban airport in the midst of a highly developed and developing Inland Empire). For example, San Bernardino International Airport (“SBIA”), while sporting a new, completely empty, terminal with apparently ample groundside capacity, has serious airspace conflicts with ONT, as well as a $4,000 foot high mountain at the end of its principal runway.

The Draft RTP further opines that “congested airports have an interest in shifting traffic to less congested airports.” Draft RTP, p. 61. No they don’t. Airports earn revenue by, among other things, airline landing fees and concessions revenues like food and parking, which in turn depend on increasing numbers of passengers. The favored (although not always desirable) solution for congested airports is to simply create more capacity which is largely funded by Federal dollars appropriated by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), with little or no downside to the local operator.

Finally, the Draft RTP opines that “for airports like LAX which has a significant component of international traffic that generates more revenue than domestic flights, it may be more efficient to limit domestic flights that could be accommodated at other airports in the region, thereby freeing up capacity for more lucrative international flights.” Draft RTP, p. 61. As an organization charged with understanding transportation laws and regulations, SCAG should be aware that it is not up to the airport or the local jurisdiction that operates it to “limit domestic flights” or any flights for that matter. “The United States government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a)(1), including the type of aircraft allowed to fly and where they may land. While other laws such as the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq.) circumscribe the Federal government’s preemptive sovereignty to some extent, the local airport operator may only choose to construct, or not to construct, facilities to accommodate aircraft operations. Once such facilities exist, a local operator may not choose between operations based on their ultimate destinations.

In summary, while the Draft RTP’s general conceptual framework, analyzing transportation as a regional and cooperative issue among regional jurisdictions is supportable, the Draft RTP entirely omits from its aviation analysis reference to, or consideration of, the third party with the real power to make a difference in the allocation of regional air transportation resources – the FAA. Without such consideration, the Draft RTP’s aviation policies amount to nothing more than a wish list. The comment period on the Draft RTP extends until February 14, 2012.
 

A New Technological Fix Hopes to Make Airport Noise a "Whisper"

Noise abatement procedures are only effective if they are used. Noise impacted communities are frequently heard to complain that, despite the complex, time consuming and expensive process needed to develop and implement noise abatement procedures at airports, either through the FAA’s Part 150 process, or through other airport specific processes, airlines seem to ignore them. The rationale often provided is that each airline is entitled to develop and implement its own flight procedures, some, but not all of which incorporate the specified noise abatement procedures. This situation was exacerbated in 1990 when the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., took noise abatement policy making out of the hands of local airports and placed approval authority exclusively in the hands of the FAA.

A deceptively simple solution to this pervasive problem of airlines non-uniform observance of airport specific noise abatement policies has been developed by a small, new company in Truckee, California, Whispertrack.
 

The concept behind the Whispertrack system is simple: to “give airports an intuitive, web based tool to manage and update their noise abatement procedures” (Esaassoc.com/Airports, Summer 2011 Aviation Rising), as well as to distribute the various noise abatement procedures to flight crews and aircraft operators throughout the entire national air transportation system.

 

The Whispertrack system distributes noise abatement procedures in much the same way as Instrument Flight Rule procedures are distributed today: through flight planning/dispatch services developed by companies such as Honeywell, Universal, flightplan.com, AIRNAV and others. In essence, Whispertrack establishes a technical process extending across all categories of noise abatement procedure, and is intended to transmit this information universally, so that noise abatement procedures developed painstakingly by cooperative processes between aircraft and airport operators, air traffic controllers, and communities won’t be ignored by failure to integrate them into the normal flight planning system.

Whether Whispertrack will remedy the frequent divergence of aircraft from established noise abatement procedures is yet to be established by the year old process. What is certain is that Whispertrack is a step toward eliminating the “nobody told me” defense that so often accompanies divergence from established noise abatement procedures, observance of which is so heavily relied upon by noise impacted communities.
 

GAO Removes FAA Air Traffic Control Modernization Program to Its 2009 "High-Risk" List

The U.S. Government Accountability Office today removed FAA air traffic control modernization program in its biennial update of its list of federal programs, policies, and operations that are at "high risk' for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or in need of broad-based transformation.  See, High Risk Series:  An Update, issued January 22, 2009.

The GAO added FAA air traffic control modernization to the High-Risk List in 1995 due to cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls in the FAA attempts to modernize its air traffic control system.  However, the GAO has found that the FAA is making progress in "addressing most of the root cause of its past problems."  The GAO concluded that the FAA's efforts "have yielded results, including deploying new systems across the country and incurring fewer cost overruns." 

That being said, the GAO warned the FAA that it "will be closely monitoring FAA’s efforts because the modernization program is still technically complex and costly, and FAA needs to place a high priority on efficient and effective management."  Moreover, because FAA has now extended its modernization efforts to plan for a next-generation air transportation system that is to transform the current radar-based system to an aircraft-centered, satellite-based system, it must fall into the same pitfalls "that have plagued it in the past."

One thing missing from the GAO report is any discussion about how resolving the labor issues with the Air Traffic Controllers would affect the modernization effort currently underway.  With the emphasis in the GAO Report on equipment and deployment of that upgraded equipment, one wonders about making sure that the humans operating that equipment are well-trained and well-paid.

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