Joan Lowy

Lawmakers propose bill to privatize air traffic control

WASHINGTON (AP) — Responsibility for the nation’s air traffic control operations would shift from the government to a private, nonprofit corporation under legislation introduced Feb. 3 as part of an overhaul of how Washington oversees the aviation system. The measure extends for six years the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration and continues its role as the regulator of aviation safety, including the safety of air traffic operations. It also prohibits cellphone calls by airline passengers in-flight, and requires airlines refund bag fees when checked bags arrive more than 24 hours overdue. But the FAA would lose responsibility for day-to-day air traffic operations and the transition from a radar-based traffic control system to one based on satellite technology. A board representing aviation system users would govern the new, federally chartered air traffic control corporation. The bill would complete the transfer of air traffic operations, hundreds of facilities and about 38,000 workers to the new corporation within three years. Rep. Bill Shuster, the bill’s chief sponsor, said it was a “transformational” solution and greatly needed because modernization of the air traffic system is taking too long and costing too much. Without an overhaul, the system won’t be able to keep up with growing air traffic demands and congestion will increase, said Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Shuster, R-Pa., told reporters that he also wants to revamp how air traffic operations are financed, eliminating most airline ticket taxes in favor of a fee-based system. The proposal envisions charging commercial operators — airlines, air cargo companies, charter plane, air taxi services and others — for the services they use. Private pilots and noncommercial aircraft operators would continue the same fuel and other taxes as before rather than service fees. But the bill doesn’t specify how the tax and fee structure would be changed because decisions on taxes are up to the House Ways and Means Committee; Shuster is working with that committee, a spokesman said. It’s unclear if this would ultimately result in lower airfares since airlines would presumably pass along the cost of the new fees to their customers, but the hope is that privatizing air traffic control will produce greater efficiency and reduce the overall cost of the system, according to Republican committee aides. The aides briefed reporters on the condition that they not be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the senior Democrat on the committee, said Democrats strongly oppose the privatization plan, although they’re happy with most of the rest of the bill. “This privatization proposal gives a private corporation the power to tax the American public to pay for safe operations, and it hands over a public asset worth billions of dollars to a private corporation for free,” DeFazio said. The corporation would effectively become a monopoly that picks winners and losers and decides routes, schedules, and slots based on profit margins, he said. Airlines, the lobbying muscle behind the bill, have long said the fairest way to pay for the air traffic system is to have all aircraft operators pay fees for the services they use, such as controller-directed takeoffs and landings and government weather reports. Most other aircraft operators oppose a fee system, which they say would shift a greater share of paying for the air traffic system away from airlines and onto them. The model for Shuster’s proposal is Canada, which shifted its air traffic operations to a nonprofit corporation about a decade ago. In the U.S., private contractors who provide air traffic control services at small airports general have lower costs than at FAA facilities because they hire fewer personnel and pay lower salaries. The FAA has worked on its “NextGen” modernization program for more than a decade and says much progress has been made. Lawmakers and airlines say they have yet to see significant benefits from the billions of dollars spent on modernization and are deeply frustrated. Shuster and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., the aviation subcommittee chairman and the bill’s co-sponsor, gained an influential ally Wednesday when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 14,000 air traffic controllers, announced its support for the bill. The bill also: • Seeks to force the FAA to issue regulations governing the use of small drones more quickly by threatening to impose its own rules on small drone operations. • Gives the FAA administrator the ability to waive safety rules for classes of commercial drone operations like limitation on how far and how high drones are allowed to fly and a prohibition on nighttime flights. • Would continue to bar the FAA from issuing safety regulations banning cargo shipments of lithium batteries on passenger planes unless the International Civil Aviation Organization adopts a ban first.

IG: Anchorage among airports with too few traffic controllers

WASHINGTON (AP) — There are too few fully qualified controllers at more than a dozen of the nation’s busiest air traffic facilities stretching from Atlanta to Anchorage, according to report released Jan. 26 by a government watchdog. The 13 airport towers, approach control facilities and en route centers have fewer fully trained controllers than the minimum number established by the Federal Aviation Administration specifically for each facility, Transportation Department’s inspector general said. The FAA considers the facilities fully staffed because controllers still in training are used to fill the gaps. But the report says there is great variation among trainee skill levels and readiness to work on their own. It typically takes about three to five years for a trainee to become fully qualified. Many trainees need fully qualified controllers to sit alongside and watch while they direct air traffic, ready to step in if there is a problem. Other trainees have reached a level of proficiency where they’re able to work alone. The report also questions the validity of the minimum staffing levels the FAA has assigned to the facilities, finding fault with the agency’s methodology. The report comes as member of Congress gear up for a fight over whether to spin off air traffic control operations from the FAA and place them under the control of a nonprofit corporation made up of airlines, airports and other aviation stakeholders. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is expected to introduce a bill within the next few weeks. The concept has the support of most of the airline industry with the exception of Delta Air Lines. But key House and Senate Democrats, as well as some business and general aviation groups, are opposed. The inspector general’s office recently said in a separate report that spending on air traffic control operations has doubled over two decades, while productivity has declined substantially and efforts to improve performance have been ineffective. Managers at some the 23 key facilities examined in the report cited a higher number of controllers needed to fill all work shifts than the FAA’s designated minimum number of personnel for that facility. “As a result, there is still considerable debate and uncertainty regarding how many controllers FAA actually needs for its most critical facilities,” wrote Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation. Some managers agreed that trainees contribute to handling the workload, while others indicated that meeting on-the-job training requirements limited the contribution of trainees, the report said. The 13 facilities where there were less than the designated minimum number of fully trained controllers are the Anchorage tower/approach control, Atlanta approach control, Chicago approach control, Chicago’s O’Hare tower, Denver approach control, Dallas approach control, Houston approach control, New York’s John F. Kennedy tower, New York’s approach control, New York’s high altitude traffic center, Las Vegas’ approach control, Miami’s tower, and Albuquerque’s high altitude traffic center. For example, at the New York approach control facility, where handling air traffic is notoriously demanding, there were 150 fully qualified controllers even though the minimum set by the FAA was 173. There were also 53 trainees. The FAA data on staffing levels is from October 2014. The report doesn’t explain why more current data wasn’t used. Responding to the report, the FAA said in a statement that it is expediting transfers of controllers “from well-staffed facilities to those needing additional personnel.” The agency also said it has recently concluded research on how controllers do their jobs that will help improve overall staffing standards. Further complicating the picture is the large share of fully qualified controllers who are eligible to retire. At the O’Hare airport tower, for example, 24 of the 48 fully qualified controllers were eligible to retire. At the airport tower in Miami, 30 of the 80 fully qualified controllers were eligible to retire. Under FAA rules, any controller who has worked directing air traffic for 25 years is eligible for retirement benefits. Any controller over age 50 who has worked a minimum of 20 years is also eligible for retirement benefits. The FAA has set 56 as the mandatory retirement age for controllers, but most controllers retire before that. The FAA doesn’t consider the retirement situation at specific facilities when estimating how many new controllers it needs to hire, but rather uses a national forecast of retirements, the report said. “FAA does not have the data or an effective model in place to fully and accurately identify how many controllers FAA needs to maintain efficiency without compromising safety,” Hampton wrote.
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