In an unusual divergence of opinion between aviation related organizations concerning progress in the operation and development of the national air traffic system, the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”), the nationwide organization of private aircraft owners, opposes the plan set forth in the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, H.R. 2997 (“AIRR Act”). That plan calls for the air traffic control (“ATC”) system currently managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to be removed from federal government control, and turned over to a 13 member, largely private, board, the dominant members of which are the nation’s commercial airlines. See § 90305.
Up against a September 30th deadline for the passage of legislation before its recess, Congressman Bud Shuster introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (“21st Century AIRR Act” or “Act”), H.R. 2997. Although somewhat obscured by its name and size (in excess of 200 pages), one of the central points of the Bill is the transfer of air traffic control responsibility from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to a private sector corporation (“Corporation), i.e., privatization of the air traffic control system. The Bill betrays the speed of its development through its lack of specificity on a number of critical issues.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Other information regarding this document:
- GAO’s 2009 High-Risk Series in a list format
- Summary of the GAO Report "High-Risk Series: An Update"
- Highlights of the GAO Report "High-Risk Series: An Update"