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April 25, 2015 // Paul Rinaldi Column in Eno Transportation Weekly

The United States and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are considered the gold standard for aviation across the globe. Our goal is to maintain and improve upon our high standard. However fundamental change is needed to do so. The unstable and unpredictable nature of funding for our National Airspace System (NAS) is unacceptable. Because of repeated interruptions to the funding stream, the FAA has struggled to maintain resources and staff at its busiest facilities across the nation. These problems cannot be allowed to persist.
A lot is at stake. Commercial aviation contributes $1.5 trillion annually to the U.S. gross domestic product. The NAS supports more than 12 million American jobs and trillions of dollars in economic activity. A lack of steady, certain funding has led to serious problems within the FAA, including the inability to finance long-term projects, to develop systems for new users of our airspace, and to modernize aging infrastructure.

In a few short months, the federal government will once again face sequestration’s deep, across-the-board cuts in spending. At the same time, the FAA’s Congressional authorization expires. These looming deadlines present serious challenges, but there are also opportunities to be had. The right kind of change can bring certainty and growth for our nation’s aviation system along with security to the dedicated men and women who operate it.

Safety must remain the top priority. Air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals work day in and day out to keep our aviation system the safest, most efficient in the world; it’s in their DNA. The flying public deserves that, and the 20,000 hardworking professionals represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) deserve a work environment that is not plagued by uncertainty. No one can afford to see such a vital function diminished.

Rather, we want to see the National Airspace System grow, innovate, modernize, and create jobs. We want to continue to be the gold standard of the aviation world. We cannot assume that we will always be the global leader. The future of the industry is constantly evolving, and we need to keep up.  If we fail to adapt, we will lose our edge.

NATCA has boldly called for major change to correct this funding problem. As a result, many other stakeholders have spoken out and are participating in the kind of discussions needed in order to bring about change.  Many are also proposing altering the structure of the FAA. Negotiations are just beginning, so it’s important to be clear about where we stand.

NATCA will oppose any overhaul that creates a private, for-profit entity to oversee air traffic control services. That would simply create a new funding problem in place of the old one. Stakeholders must come to a consensus on a viable, stable funding system before any structural changes are considered. Any transition will be carefully examined and cannot be done in haste. This huge undertaking will require that all stakeholders set aside their parochial concerns and take steps together to grow the NAS, for the benefit of the flying public and the global economy.

But before we can consider such a change, we must drill down to the specifics. No other airspace system is like that of the United States. And no existing system is perfect, much less perfectly suitable for a system as large and diverse as ours.

Canada’s air traffic control system, NavCanada, is often held up as a potential model for the U.S. to emulate. It is an intriguing system and it works well for Canada. But there are important facts to consider.

Of the top 30 airports in the world, Canada has only one –Toronto, at number 15. The U.S. has eight of the top 10, and 16 of the top 30. Another consideration is the number of air traffic control facilities in Canada versus the U.S. Canada has 42 while the U.S. has 342.

NavCanada manages 12 million flights per year. The U.S. is on track to manage 140 million flights this year alone. There are obviously major differences in the scale between the two systems.

Moving in the direction of the Canadian model is an interesting idea, and we are researching whether it is scalable. But again, it cannot be pursued until our nation’s air traffic control system has a stable, predictable, funding stream in place. Reform without funding certainty will not achieve and maintain the kind of growth we need.

Now more than ever, we need Congress to take thoughtful action to reduce the burdens currently holding our system back, without creating even more bureaucracy or unintended consequences.

Our NAS is an American treasure. We cannot continue to shortchange it. We’ve built a great system, and we can improve upon it for the future. It won’t be easy. In the spirit of American aviation, we must again become pioneers. Let’s choose the best path carefully.

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