Should The Government Get Out Of The Air Traffic Control Business?
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The nation's air traffic control system is considered safe, but inefficient. Efforts to replace it with newer technology haven't worked because of uncertain congressional funding and the slow-moving federal bureaucracy. Well, now some in Congress want the government to get out of the air traffic control business. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Track - there's 12-59, Washington ground spot five. Verify F Gulf (ph).
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Keeping track of the traffic in the skies above us is a big job. The Federal Aviation Administration says some 7,000 aircraft are over the U.S. at any given time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cactus 11-97, runway 1-9 clear for takeoff.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Takeoff 1-9, Cactus 11-97.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Flagship 21-89.
NAYLOR: Here in the tower at Reagan Washington National Airport, controllers stare at computer screens with radar images of arriving and departing flights. It's pretty much how controllers have operated since the dawn of the jet age. And it has some drawbacks, says Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center, a transportation think tank.
JOSHUA SCHANK: For example, right now because we're using radar-based systems, we cannot land as many planes within a given airspace, particularly in congested places like the New York region, as we could if we could track them more effectively. And we could narrow the separations between the aircraft.
NAYLOR: The FAA has a solution to the inefficient radar. It's called NextGen, and very simply put, it would replace the current air traffic control system with one based on GPS satellites - more precise and allowing more flights closer together. Problem is the FAA has been working on NextGen for over a decade now and still has a long ways to go. Here's Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania.
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CONGRESSMAN BILL SHUSTER: In the same amount of time that we've pursued NextGen, Verizon has upgraded its wireless system not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in the last 10 years.
NAYLOR: So Shuster and others in Congress, along with the airline industry, think it's time for someone other than the FAA to operate the air traffic control system. Sharon Pinkerton is vice president of Airlines for America.
SHARON PINKERTON: Air traffic control is very technology focused. And we need to have a very nimble organization and one that's not subject to politics or an annual appropriations process; that's going to enable it to get NextGen done quickly.
NAYLOR: And it's not just industry and the GOP that support extracting the air traffic control function from the FAA. The union that represents air traffic controllers is on board, too.
PATRICIA GILBERT: The status quo is unacceptable.
NAYLOR: Patricia Gilbert is vice president of NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. She says the biggest problem with the current system is the way it's been funded, or not funded, by Congress.
GILBERT: We have had the national air space system subjected to a full government shutdown. In addition to that, you know, the sequester cuts had furloughed employees including air traffic controllers back in 2013. So all of these put together would be a problem for keeping a system with predictable and stable funding.
NAYLOR: Separating the air traffic control function from the rest of the FAA would not be simple, but there are models. In Canada, for instance, the system is run by a nonprofit corporation and funded by user fees. Backers in the U.S. say big capital expenses, like the $40 billion it will cost to fully build out the NextGen GPS system, could be raised on the bond market. Still there are skeptics. The FAA says it's been making steady progress in implementing NextGen. Democratic Congressman Rick Larsen of Washington wonders if spinning off the air traffic controllers is really necessary.
CONGRESSMAN RICK LARSEN: Airlines are making money, the system is safe and the FAA with close congressional oversight is making progress on NextGen. So the question that has to be asked - what's the problem we're trying to tackle when we talk about reforming our air traffic control system?
NAYLOR: Congress is now in the process of what it calls reauthorizing the FAA for the next five years, and it's possible reorganizing the air traffic controls system could be a part of that effort. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.