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Modern Skies Will Only Come About From Transformational ATC Reform

The House Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing today to review the FAA’s hiring, staffing and training plans for air traffic controllers. The testimony by the experts who know the system best shined a bright spotlight on the alarming problems facing the system.

Paul Rinaldi, who runs the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union that represents the controllers, said staffing is at a 27-year low and likened it to a “crisis” situation.

“If we do not act decisively and soon, I fear that our nation’s air traffic control system will soon face the same challenges and consequences as D.C.’s Metro system, which has been plagued by deferred maintenance and chronic underfunding,” Rinaldi said in his testimony. “Without a stable and predictable funding stream for the National Airspace System (NAS), controller staffing is just the first of many NAS crises that Congress will need to resolve in the near future.”

It was clear that status quo is not good enough. Transformational air traffic control (ATC) that addresses the root cause of the problem is up for debate.

An entity entirely focused on air traffic control reform would be in a much better position to improve the hiring and staffing process of controllers, said Matthew E. Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits for the federal Department of Transportation. Hampton’s comments came during a hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, which focused on the FAA’s controller hiring, staffing and training plans.

At the end of FY2015, there were 10,947 certified air traffic controllers and another 2,964 individuals in various stages of training. Prepared testimony from Teri Bristol, COO of the air traffic organization at FAA, notes that “on any given day … controllers safely control more than 50,000 flights ranging from small general aviation to large commercial aircraft operation.” That’s a staggering number of flights, and it should put into perspective just how demanding, stressful and critical controllers’ jobs are. The fact that our skies are the gold standard for safety is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of these men and women.

Despite the number of controllers in training, the FAA continues to fall short of its hiring goals. Combine that with the agency’s estimate that 27 percent of fully certified controllers at critical facilities were eligible to retire as of September 2015, and we have a critical staffing issue on our hands. Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio said the “current staffing situation is unsustainable” and Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said that without real reform, “damaging effects will occur down the road [and] must be addressed today,” adding “under the current status quo, our passengers will suffer.”

Clearly, as Rep. Rodney Davis said, “the bureaucratic structure is failing us.”

The way to fix this, as suggested by Asst. Inspector General Hampton, is to create an entity that would focus just on ATC, allowing it to streamline hiring and training. The reforms contained in the House version of the FAA reauthorization legislation do just that by separating ATC operations from the FAA and putting it under the auspices of an independent, government-chartered, non-profit organization governed by a board representing a range of aviation stakeholders. The FAA would retain safety oversight. This approach guarantees a reliable funding model, thereby providing a remedy from the “stop-and-go funding, self-inflicted bureaucratic processes,” according to Rinaldi.

In fact, the proposal to separate ATC operations from the FAA’s safety oversight function, which is used by more than 50 countries, has been endorsed by the union and most of the major airlines. The longer it takes the U.S. to adopt this approach, the more we risk eroding our leadership in this space.

The stakes are high, and Randy Babbitt, former FAA Administrator and current senior vice president of Labor Relations for Southwest Airlines, with 50 years of experience in the aviation industry, summed it up well in his prepared testimony:

“My confidence in the ATC system itself is a little shaky these days. Although I have no concern from a safety   perspective – the safety of the ATC system is never in doubt – I do question the reliability of the overall ATC system from an operational and customer service perspective.

 “The U.S. aviation system is both labor and capital-intensive. And, like other modes of transportation and other sectors of the aviation industry, prolonged underfunding of staffing needs and system improvements will take its toll as it has with the DC Metro System and the TSA security apparatus.

 “All of this produces concern about whether the current ATC system can move forward and be modernized in its present form. Eventually, without major structural changes and greater funding and staffing certainty, serious inconveniences to aircraft operators and ultimately to our Customers and your constituents will result.”

 

It’s time to free ATC operations from politics and provide a secure, predictable funding stream so the U.S. can lead the future with modern skies.