US transportation secretary Elaine Chao said FAA cannot both increase the country’s air system capacity and maintain safety in its current configuration.

Testifying before the US House of Representatives June 8, Chao reiterated the Trump administration’s support for separating air traffic control (ATC) from FAA, pushing for Congress to include the creation of “a private, nonprofit cooperative for air traffic control” in FAA reauthorization legislation expected to be taken up later this year.

“Our skies are becoming increasingly congested; flight delays and time wasted on the tarmac waiting for clearance are the new normal,” she said. “Some domestic flights between the same two cities today actually take longer than they did decades ago because of congestion and indirect routing. What this means is that we do not have a system that can handle increasing capacity and still maintain safety.”

Chao said the federal government is too “bulky” to “move fast enough to keep pace with new technologies and new demands,” adding, “A private nonprofit entity with the flexibility and authority to make investment decisions can move much more quickly to replace old equipment and paper flight strips with the latest technology.”

Chao said the “private entity” managing ATC should be supported by user fees and governed by an “impartial board of directors.” Surplus revenue generated by the new entity “will be reinvested to keep the system current,” Chao said.

The transportation secretary said FAA’s NextGen modernization program, which aims to transform US ATC from a ground radar-based system to a satellite-based system, “has been implemented at certain airports and facilities under current constraints,” but “FAA’s efforts are often hampered by piecemeal government appropriations and a slow federal procurement process.”

Chao added, “A private, nonprofit ATC co-op would be able to leverage private sector financial tools with agility and ingenuity, and accelerate advances in aviation technology. Combined with a steady, predictable revenue stream from user fees and borrowing from capital markets when necessary, the new ATC would be able to make the best modernization investment decisions to keep ATC technology up-to-date and competitive with that of our global peers.”

Aaron Karp