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Transcribed Remarks: NATCA President Paul Rinaldi to the Aero Club of Washington on April 20, 2015, About the Need for Stable, Predictable Funding for the National Airspace System

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, friends of aviation, thank you for this honor to speak in front of you today. This is my second speech in front of the Aero Club and much like my first speech here it comes at a pivotal time for the industry and the dedicated men and women who make this industry run.

I’m having a bit of déjà vu though. My first speech was just over two years ago right before the first round of sequestration cuts were implemented. Leading up to those cuts in 2013 the FAA had to make some real tough choices, decisions on what the system was going to look like. They considered closing 238 air traffic control towers, and reducing hours of operation in many more. New equipment that was needed to track airplanes accurately was stockpiled rather than implemented and installed.

Work on NextGen came to a halt, our existing equipment and operation was stuck into a fix on fail policy, hiring was suspended despite ongoing attritions, the Air Traffic Control academy was shut down, which still is affecting our workforce today, and for the first time the FAA furloughed air traffic controllers. All of this was done not to enhance the safety of our aviation system, but to save money.

And now my second speech here at the Aero Club is taking place just five months before round two of sequestration cuts that take place on October 1 of this year, and at the same time the FAA reauthorization bill expires on the same day. Pretty bleak. Projections for the upcoming October 1 sequestration cuts to the FAA’s operational budget will be much larger than what we saw in 2013. It was $253 million of a budget short fall. Everybody in this room probably knows it took five days for Congress to pass legislation, to take money out of the AIP fund, to at the very least get our operation back to normal. Never the less the FAA still had to make some drastic cuts in many areas in 2013. Well we recall they burnt the furniture. In 2015 there’s no more furniture to burn, there’s no more fat left to cut.

I shudder when I think of what the FAA has to contemplate and make choices to make 2015 sequestration cuts. We will all lose, everybody in this room, everybody in the industry. If sequestration cuts continue on target we will have less of an aviation system. The pride and joy of this country and at least of everybody in this room. We will have less modernization. We will lose our global edge as the world leader in aviation.

Currently we run the safest, most efficient, most complex, most diverse airspace system in the world. Our system is incomparable, unequaled, and unrivaled by any other country. The United States and the FAA are considered the gold standard in the world aviation community, and yet the reality is in order to keep that, a change is needed. The status quo of unstable, unpredictable, uncertain funding for the National Airspace System is unacceptable. Any stakeholder in this room that says differently or thinks differently is governed by their own parochial interest rather than what’s best for the United States airspace system.

We all have a stake in this National Airspace System. It’s an economic engine that contributes $1.5 trillion annually to the gross domestic product. Over 12 million American jobs are contributed to the National Airspace System. Again, the problem with status quo is the lack of a stable, predictable funding. Funding uncertainty has led to serious problems within the FAA. The inability to finance long-term projects, to develop new systems for the new users that want to enter into our airspace, to modernize our countries aging infrastructure. Because of the constant interruptions of the funding stream, the FAA has struggled to maintain proper resources and staffing at our busiest facilities across the country. What I find most interesting is everybody wants to talk about how we’re going to restructure the FAA and nobody wants to address the real issue, which is the uncertainty of a stable funding system.

As we look five months ahead in time, with sequestration cuts and the FAA reauthorization bill expiring, the future is ugly unless every single one of us rolls up our sleeves and gets to work. Let us not forget the long journey we had on our last FAA reauthorization cut. It was signed on February of 2012 but before that, we endured 23 short-term extensions occurring over a five-year period. We prepared for a full government shutdown in April of 2011 to be avoided two minutes to midnight on April 8. In the summer of 2011 we suffered through a partial shutdown of the FAA, which lasted almost two months. The FAA reauthorization bill was actually signed in February of 2012 and everybody in this room and everybody in the industry thought they had time to breathe, and we did. We had eight months because in January of 2013 sequester hit, then it was delayed for 90 days, and then March 1 sequester kicked in.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends of aviation, we have reached the breaking point. We cannot continue these starts and stops in planning and lack of funding. We just can’t do it. We need a funding system that is predictable and insures the FAA has the resources to hire, train, modernize, and improve their infrastructure. The National Airspace System should not be burdened with furloughs and staffing shortages, or threats of closing towers. Our aging equipment and buildings are unacceptable.

Safety has always been our top priority and it will always continue to be our top priority. We all work in this industry for the same reason – to operate and advance aviation in this country. Aviation safety is in our DNA, it’s an intrinsic part of who we are as professionals. We work day in and day out to make this system the safest, most efficient in the world. The 20,000 hardworking professionals that NATCA represents, along with everybody in this room, deserve better than unpredictable funding. We do not want to see our aviation system reduced. We want to have our system grow, innovate, modernize, and create jobs – a system that will keep us the leader in the world aviation system.

We built and operate this system together. Every single one of us. We should be proud of our accomplishments, but we can’t rest on them, and we can’t take them for granted. More importantly we should not rest on the thought that we will always be the global leader in aviation because we are losing our competitive edge. We all know air traffic is the safest mode of transportation by far. The future of aviation is changing. We have to as well.

We still have so much to do in front of us. What we decide to do to the National Airspace System, as a group, will affect the whole global aviation community. Whatever we decide not to do because of funding, another country will step up, take our place, and accomplish it. Our National Airspace System is an American treasure. We cannot continue to short-change it. Aviation is uniquely an American tradition. It was invented here – from the dunes of Kitty Hawk to the first commercial flight of St. Petersburg, Fla. to Tampa, Fla. The invention of flight has ignited an industry, which everyone in this room is proud to be a part of. It is an industry that has inspired, dreamed, and innovated. It is not governed by “what ifs” or lack of money.

Over 100 years ago visionaries believed that one day the skies would crisscross with airlines carrying passengers. Think about 100 years ago that they actually had that vision. It’s simply amazing. It’s simply unbelievable to have that foresight. Today, the commercial aviation industry is now the cornerstone of the world’s economy. Aviation is an industry we should all continue to push the limits of. It’s an industry that should grow and innovate for new users, for new AV systems, for commercial space, and for the next generation to build on the unbelievable.

The future of this industry should not be funding cuts. The future of this industry should not be looking at reducing our aviation footprint and stifling technology. We built a great system, and we can build a great system for the future but it won’t be easy. I know within my own union it won’t be easy but I will tell you, and I will promise you it will be worth it. No great accomplishment has ever taken the easy path. In the true spirit of American aviation we can do anything we set our minds to. We just have to decide that we want to do it.

(Video plays)

I truly don’t believe that I am wrong. This group of people will put their minds together. The discussions we’re going to have will be tough but necessary. Status quo is unacceptable. It’s just that simple. We all have our parochial positions, and I can name them if you want me to because I know them all. But I’m not going to. We have to set those aside and figure out what’s best for the National Airspace System. Because I truly believe that if we put our heart, our mind, and our soul into what’s best for the National Airspace System, it will be best for us too.

I truly believe that when we build a better system, we will still be a global leader, with the world looking to us for innovation and technology. We will be that much better off.

I applaud Chairman Shuster and Ranking Member DeFazio for aggressively attacking this issue. The upcoming FAA Reauthorization bill must provide a predictable, stable funding stream for the National Airspace System. There is no way we can deliver and improve upon our current level of services with uncertain, short-term funding extensions.

We’ve made some progress on a number of programs; you saw several on the video. ERAM and TAMR, Wake Turbulence Recategorization, Metroplex, PBN design, ATSAP, with punitive-free reporting, our Professional Standards program, which gives us the ability to enhance our efforts to mitigate fatigue, and our Turn Off Tune In program, which seeks to eliminate distractions from the operational environment. We have built a very collaborative atmosphere at the FAA and with FAA leadership, Administrator Huerta, Chief Operating Officer Teri Bristol, and Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker. But the progress we have made does not equal success. We will never succeed under this current funding stream and structure.

The aviation system is an economic engine that supports the entire country’s economy. Reducing or shutting off the fuel of this economic engine will affect the entire U.S. economy and the entire world economy. We understand that addressing funding makes a lot of people go toward the structure of the FAA. But we must agree that funding – a secure, stable funding system – is the first thing that must be agreed to. Any structural changes that we want to look at have to be carefully examined. It cannot be done in haste or exuberance that will lead to unintended consequences. Safety always has to be our priority. None of us can afford to get this wrong. We must be precise in addressing the current problems and in looking at what the structure might look at as we move forward. We must work together to find, and create, predictable funding, while also maintaining the safest, most efficient system in the world. We look forward to working with everyone in this room, and with Congress, on solutions.

We must set our parochial issues aside and grow this National Airspace System. It’s what’s good for you, it’s what’s good for me, it’s what’s good for the flying public, the American public, this economy and the world. It’s us – it is we in this room – that can do this. But before we can support change, we must definitely examine all of the specifics. You see, no system is like the United States’ airspace system. No system used elsewhere is perfect, much less suitable for a system this large and diverse as ours.

Let me just give you a couple of examples because everybody throws the NAVCANADA model out at me all the time. That is a very intriguing, interesting model that works very well for Canada. But let’s just go through it with everyone in this room. Out of the top 30 airports in the world, Canada has one – number 15, Toronto. This country has eight out of the top 10, and 16 of the top 30. It’s easy for them to modernize when they have one major airport they need to worry about. Let’s look at the size in terms of number of facilities. They have 42 facilities; we have 342 facilities. It’s easy to upgrade your equipment when you have 42 facilities, compared to 342 facilities. Let’s look at operations. They have 12 million operations a year and this year, we are on target to cross 140 million operations per year.

I don’t know if it’s scalable; I will be completely honest with you. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and look at it and see if it’s scalable. I’m willing to have those conversations and move forward on them, as long as we find a stable, predictable, funding stream. Because if you reform without doing anything with the funding, you’ve done nothing but just do another FAA reform. And for those in the room who have been around for FAA reforms, you know that all we’re going to do is create nothing except more bureaucracy.

Any model that we come up with must be mission driven, and ensure stable, predictable funding to adequately support air traffic control services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernization projects, and continuing to keep the system up and running and taking care of preventative maintenance. And to worry about our infrastructure, we have 20 en route centers across the country guiding airplanes from sea-to-sea. Each one of them is over 50 years old. I don’t know where we’re going to get the funding to start replacing one, let alone 20, or 10, or eight, or whatever that number might be.

This model also must ensure a robust aviation system that continues to grow, ensuring that we continue to provide services for all the segments of our aviation community, ranging from commercial pilots, to commercial passengers, air cargo haulers, business jets, general aviation, our major airports and our airports across rural America. It’s a big, diverse system that has to meet everybody’s needs.

I will tell you one thing: We will fight, and oppose, any model that derives to make a profit from air traffic control services. Any model that wants to make a profit from air traffic control services, we will fight as hard as we possibly can because that will just create another funding problem. We believe that it’s critical that the specifics of any reform we do need to be shared with all stakeholders and discussed. Our air traffic control system is a continuous, highly critical operation; 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We need a modern, dynamic structure that is nimble enough to address all the activities in the National Airspace System on a real-time basis. Any transition, no matter how small, must be seamless and not disrupt the current system we have.

We must protect and strengthen this national asset. Because that’s what it is. Our National Airspace System is a treasure. We must continue to create an environment that continues aviation growth, allowing the integration of new users, and new thought, and new technology, while continuing to maintain our global leadership. There is much at stake and there is a path ahead of us if we decide to take it.

We know one thing: status quo is unacceptable. So I ask you, are you ready to build a better system? Together, we can reach for things we can’t see. Together, we can dream, innovate, and implement the unbelievable for tomorrow. I would rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed in keeping the status quo.

I thank you for your time today and I would be happy to take some questions.

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