February 10, 2016

Larsen Opening Statement: “Review of ATC Reform Proposals”

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Rep. Rick Larsen, WA-02, the Ranking Member of the Aviation Subcommittee, delivered the following statement at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee’s hearing, “Review of ATC Reform Proposals.” The remarks are as prepared for delivery.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for agreeing to hold this hearing and for the opportunity to discuss your legislative proposal to privatize our nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system.

But before we talk privatization, I would like to thank you and Chairman LoBiondo, who have worked with Ranking Member DeFazio, me, and other Democratic Members on every other title in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill introduced last week. 

As a result, the bill is full of bipartisan provisions to increase airport investment, improve U.S. manufacturers’ ability to get products to market, integrate unmanned aircraft and improve air service for the traveling public. 

A majority of the bill is the product of bipartisan efforts that will move our country’s aviation system forward in a big way.

However, I believe privatizing ATC in the United States would be a science experiment with a lot of potential to go wrong.

I want to highlight two areas where I think the implications of this mistake are most evident and problematic.

The first deals with NextGen. While we can all acknowledge that implementation has been slow and expensive, it’s now moving forward, thanks in large part to Chairman LoBiondo’s efforts.

The FAA is finally reaching and passing important milestones on major industry priorities, such as DataComm, multiple-runway operations, performance-based navigation procedures, and programs to reduce taxi times and ground delays.

So breaking apart the FAA at a time when it is making real and important strides towards NextGen implementation would be unwise.

We’re on a nonstop flight with NextGen implementation, but we’re headed for a seven-year-plus layover with privatization.

The other area that causes me great concern, and where the proposal is only partially thought out at best, is what privatization would mean to the Department of Defense and our national security.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from the Department of Defense about ATC privatization. The last conversation we had was in May, and their concerns have not changed. While this is not an exhaustive list, I think it is critical for the committee to hear the takeaways from that meeting.

First, the one thing that is clear to me about where DOD fits into ATC privatization is that we have very little clarity on this issue.

DOD controls nearly 15 percent of the nation’s airspace. But this bill gives the Department of Defense a mere advisory role on the board of directors, a demotion from its current equal-footing partnership with FAA.

The Department of Defense may have little to no say about routes and airspace, because the bill does little to explain how the Board would make these decisions with DOD.

Additionally, after decades of a government-to-government relationship, the FAA and DOD conduct day-to-day ATC operations under the guidance of various MOUs and policy agreements. How would this relationship be handled under privatization? How would dispute resolution be settled? We aren’t sure because the bill is silent on these issues.

If the corporation’s goal is to maximize efficiency and reduce user fees, how would it maintain assets, like primary radar, that the DOD uses?

We also aren’t sure how special-use airspace will operate, how user fees will be charged to international state aircraft, or how joint civilian and military installations will handle air traffic. The list doesn’t stop there.

As we all know, the FAA’s role in securing our national airspace is critical to homeland defense. This has been accomplished through long-standing and well-articulated agreements between the FAA and DOD.

I’m concerned that entrusting this mission to a private-sector entity separate from the government would be a reckless decision with potentially dire consequences, consequences we may not have thought of yet because we have not fully aired out where DOD fits.

DOD’s role in this privatization proposal is undeveloped, undermined and uncertain.

Giving DOD a mere advisory role with no other discussion about the challenges reminds me of the role that Coldplay had in the Super Bowl half-time show: billed as a headliner, but quickly outshined.

As we sit here today, the simple fact is that privatization raises too many questions that we just cannot answer – especially one week after seeing the legislation. 

I do not see how this proposal can go through until we get clear answers to these issues.

Before this legislation moves any further, this committee has the responsibility to get clarity about what privatization means for our national security, and what impacts it could have, not on some users of the system, but on all users of the system.

We have not had those conversations, and we must.

Thank you, and I yield back.