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Foxx ‘open’ to FAA restructuring

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Will this be the year of a genuine, radical restructuring of FAA?

Everyone, it seems, is “open” to a restructuring of FAA that could include taking air traffic control out of the agency. US airlines have endorsed “a commercialized, non-profit type governance structure” for ATC, though they are a bit wary of the term “privatization.” House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) has said “the only answer” to fixing air traffic management in the US “is transformational reform that will ensure that our ATC service provider operates like a business.” Even National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union president Paul Rinaldi has called NAV Canada—the private, non-profit entity that runs Canadian ATC—“very intriguing.”

Count US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx among those willing to have an open mind on the issue. During a press conference at Washington National Airport announcing FAA’s nationwide deployment of Lockheed Martin’s En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system, I asked Foxx what he thought about proposals to remove ATC from FAA. He chose his words carefully, first saying the US has the “gold standard air traffic system in the world” and that he is “particularly proud of our air traffic controllers.”

Then Foxx said, “We will be open to thinking about different structures, but the pivot point for looking at new structures is to recognize that we have the safest system in the world and we don’t want to jeopardize that.”

All of this talk about ATC partial privatization and revamping FAA comes ahead of the FAA reauthorization bill that Congress will take up later this year; FAA’s current authorization expires Sept. 30. Shuster has said he wants the bill to be “big and bold.”

The question now is how quickly a concrete proposal on ATC reform can be put forward, and whether enough players can be convinced to back it. It’s easy to be “open” when there’s nothing tangible to be for or against.

“There are a lot of ideas floating around and we’re looking to work with Congress on this,” Foxx told me. “The focus should be on making the system better.”

Managing ATC has always been an odd fit for FAA. It makes the agency a key service provider for a commercial air transport system that it also regulates, creating an inevitable conflict of interest. It also means ATC gets roped into the annual Congressional appropriations process, making it difficult, for example, to get a steady, long-term financial commitment to deploying the satellite-based NextGen ATC system. “Many stakeholders have understandably lost confidence in FAA’s ability to modernize,” Shuster has pointed out.

At an Aero Club of Washington DC appearance last year, Foxx said, “I know there’s a lot of concern that the political underpinnings of our aviation system may be fraying. I’m willing to keep my ears and eyes open to new ways of doing things.”

Will this be the year of a genuine, radical restructuring of FAA that creates a separate NAV Canada-like entity to manage ATC? The debate will begin in earnest soon; this will likely be the overwhelming aviation policy issue on Capitol Hill this summer. Stay tuned.  

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