ICYMI: DeFazio Makes the Case Against Air Traffic Control Privatization
ICYMI: DeFazio Makes the Case Against Air Traffic Control Privatization
In case you missed it, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) delivered the following remarks at the May 17, 2017 hearing on “The Need to Reform FAA and Air Traffic Control to Build a 21st Century Aviation System for America”.
Privatization rebuttals and background prepared by Democratic staff attached.
Remarks as prepared for delivery are below.
the Honorable Peter A. DeFazio
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Hearing on
“The Need to Reform FAA and Air Traffic Control to Build a 21st Century Aviation System for America”
May 17, 2017
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Everyone knows my views on the subject of this hearing. I’ve made those views clear over the past two years that the Committee has debated air traffic control privatization. But you don’t need to listen to me to realize privatization of air traffic control is a mistake.
Today I invited Joe Brown, president of Hartzell Propeller, to testify and offer an outside-the-Beltway perspective on this subject. Joe is a pilot and runs an aviation business, and he is particularly well qualified to explain why privatization would jeopardize the health and stability of a crucial area of the U.S. economy—our national airspace—and, at best, slow down airspace modernization projects. Personally, I find Joe’s testimony, as a pilot and businessman, a lot more compelling than that of Washington think tank advocates.
Who is not testifying today? The airline CEOs. Although they and their association have testified numerous times on this issue in the past, the Majority has chosen not to invite them today. Perhaps they recognize that the American people are not interested in giving more control to the airlines when, between dragging a passenger off a plane and massive computer failures, they can’t even get their own houses in order.
And let’s be clear about one thing: We’re here today to discuss privatization of the air traffic control system. Not just reform, but privatization: Handing over, to the private sector, our entire Federal air traffic control system and entrusting a governing board made up of special interests to run the system for the public benefit. A board effectively controlled by the airlines and their allies.
This proposal failed 31 years ago when the airline industry brought it forward. It failed in the 1990s. It failed in the early 2000s. It failed last year and killed an otherwise-bipartisan Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill.
Why has it failed so often? Because it does not have enough support in Congress or among aviation stakeholders. Privatization will be a massive error of public policy. As I have stated on many occasions, it will jeopardize national security, endanger air access to small communities, allow for discrimination against certain user groups like general aviation and cargo, slow down NextGen, complicate efforts to reform other parts of the FAA, and leave certification and safety regulation subject to General Fund appropriations and the vicissitudes of the annual appropriations process. And if that weren’t enough, privatization is probably unconstitutional.
Privatization advocates point out that privatization turned out OK in Canada. Let’s ponder that for a moment. Our total airspace is 400 percent larger than Canada’s, and our air traffic system is 8.5 times busier on a flight-hour-per-square-mile basis. The United States has more than four times the number of annual instrument flight rule movements, and nearly six times the number of general aviation (GA) aircraft—36,000 GA aircraft in Canada versus more than 210,000 in the United States. We also have more than seven times the number of controllers.
I was recently provided a copy of a letter from the president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association, attesting that comparing Canada to the United States “is just not an apples to apples comparison” and that “[w]hat is acceptable in other parts of the world may not work in the United States.” The Chairman has said he doesn’t like one-size-fits-all approaches. Yet grafting Canada’s system onto our system would be exactly that. And it wouldn’t fit.
In fact, Inspector General Scovel, I think the cautious title of your office’s report on this subject in 2015 is telling: There Are Significant Differences Between FAA and Foreign Countries’ Processes for Operating Air Navigation Systems.
As Mr. Scovel noted in his report, foreign air traffic control providers such as Nav Canada “do not embark on large-modernization efforts or conduct extensive aviation research and development.” Instead, they “implement new technologies incrementally.” These foreign providers have the luxury of buying new technology virtually off the shelf, whereas our system is so complex and unique that we must tailor solutions to fit the U.S. network.
Sure, the FAA has made missteps in implementing NextGen. But when we put aside the inside-the-Beltway spin, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel—and it’s not a train coming at us. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2014 that, of 76 aviation stakeholders, just five said they had little to no confidence in the FAA’s ability to implement NextGen. The truth is that privatization would slow NextGen down. According to a study by the MITRE Corporation, a proper transition could take seven years.
Unfortunately, facts have been lost in much of this debate. Improvements could and should be made to the FAA and how it operates. However, proponents of privatization have created a narrative about the FAA that supports their argument, but is not supported by facts.
They say the FAA has missed the boat in signing up for space-based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), as the Canadians and the British have done, for air traffic control over the oceans. But the reality is that the United States controls just 16 percent of the transatlantic traffic by volume that Canada controls, and the FAA is evaluating space-based ADS-B against other options to arrive at a cost-effective solution.
They talk about the slow pace of modernization. When, in fact, the FAA has already rolled out 8,030 performance-based navigation procedures, 4,421 wide area augmentation system approaches, and 390 required navigation performance approaches, with more in the works. The FAA has built out the ground network for ADS-B, and now is just waiting for airlines and other users to equip. Full utilization of the new system may be delayed, but not because of the FAA. It is the airlines who are slowing down the process by petitioning the FAA to excuse them from certain ADS-B performance requirements because their aircraft’s navigation equipment is too old.
Something proponents of privatization won’t say is that we are way ahead of Canada when it comes to adoption of ADS-B for overland surveillance. Nav Canada will continue to rely on World War II-era radar indefinitely—the same old technology that privatization advocates in the United States claim is unacceptable for a 21st-century aviation system. Let me repeat that: Nav Canada will continue to rely on World War II-era radar over land while the U.S. moves to a satellite-based system.
And then there’s the narrative about electronic flight strips. Canadian controllers use them, and privatization advocates use the FAA’s paper flight strips as a symbol of missed opportunity. But the reality is the FAA is on track to implement electronic flight strips as part of a larger, cutting-edge suite of innovations in 2020, with the express support of government and industry stakeholders.
Instead of ripping apart the FAA, as privatization would require, I, together with Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member Larsen, intend to offer an alternative proposal that will keep the FAA together while solving the real problems the agency faces: unstable funding, inefficient procurement and personnel management processes, and political tinkering through the Department of Transportation and Office of Management and Budget.
U.S. airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world. It is also the safest. Targeted air traffic control reforms can cure what ails the FAA without privatizing a national asset worth tens of billions of dollars and risking U.S. aviation leadership and safety.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses. Thank you.
 Dep’t of Transp. Office of the Inspector General, There Are Significant Differences Between FAA and Foreign Countries’ Processes for Operating Air Navigation Systems 3, Rpt. No. AV-2015-084 (2015).