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.  

The apparent rationale behind the shift, heavily supported by the commercial airline industry, is the consistent delays and resulting costs in fuel and efficiency that have been endemic to the ground based radar air traffic control system in effect since World War II.  The airline industry maintains that insufficient progress has been made in expediting operations to accommodate the increasing number of operations in the United States airspace.  The commercial airlines’ position is supported by the legislative purpose which is “to provide for more efficient operations and improvement of air traffic services.”  See § 201.  
 
AOPA, on the other hand, relies on examples of the disputed improvements in system management which it maintains undercut the airline industry rationale for pursuing privatization.  


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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.


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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. 
 


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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.  


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During the past week, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has taken two actions likely to elicit “equal and opposite reactions” from the aviation community specifically, and the American public in general.  On the positive end of the spectrum lies FAA’s approval of a presumed cure for the dramatic malfunctions of the lithium ion batteries installed by the Boeing Company in place of the hydraulic system in the company’s 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.  This “fix” will allow Boeing to begin deliveries of the aircraft again after an FAA mandated hiatus since January 16, 2013.  At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum lies FAA’s decision to begin the furloughing of air traffic controllers, a move that has already precipitated the filing of petitions with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by, among others, the aviation trade group for the nation’s airlines, Airlines for America, the Airline Pilots Association, and the Regional Airline Association.


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On March 10, 2009, the GAO made public its response to questions submitted for the record related to the February 11, 2009, hearing concerning  the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009.  At that hearing, Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, was asked a series of questions to which he replied that he would supply written responses at later date.  This document that GAO has now made public are those responses.

Most of the questions concerned NextGen, its implementation, and potential pitfalls that the GAO believes the FAA will encounter.

  1. How can the FAA provide incentives to get aircraft equipped to handle NextGen?
  2. Answer:  Through use of some combination of mandated deadlines, operational credits or equipment investment credits.  FAA has proposed a "best-equipped, best-served" program whereby FAA would offer those aircraft operators who choose to equip their aircraft as soon as possible with various operational benefits, such as preferred airspace, routings, or runway access.  Boeing has proposed a "reverse auction" in which federal investment tax credits would be combined with operational benefits.  This program, however would cost about $750 million annually over and above the cost of the implementation of NextGen.

  3. List of NextGen technology demonstration projects
  4. Answer:  See the next page for a table of the demonstration projects.

  5. Does the GAO distinguish between ATC Modernization and NextGen?
  6. Answer:  The ATC modernization program focused primarily on the acquisition of ATC systems. NextGen is a total transformation of the air transportation system, representing a paradigm shift from air traffic control to air traffic management. It is a shift from ground based radar control of aircraft to a satellite-based, aircraft-centric national airspace system.

  7. If Congress were to provide the level of funding outlined in the FAA’s preliminary estimate, approximately $1 billion more through 2012 than the most recent Capital Investment Plan, would it help to accelerate the development and deployment of NextGen?
  8. Yes, if Congress provided FAA with additional funding, that funding could be applied to a variety of projects and initiatives that would help to accelerate the development and deployment of NextGen.

  9. Would additional funding help to bridge the so-called "NASA Gap?"
  10. The NASA gap has increased in recent years from both the previous administration’s cuts to NASA’s aeronautics research funding and the expanded requirements of NextGen.

  11. Additional research, development and deployment that could be done with funding over and above FAA’s Capital Investment Plan funding levels?
  12. GAO found that avionics development and aircraft equipage are two areas that are critical and time sensitive for the implementation of NextGen and could be candidates for increased funding. In addition, additional funding for human factors to aid in the transition from "air traffic control" to "air traffic management" could be used to elucidate the new roles for all participants.


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