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Sept. 16, 2016 // Paul Rinaldi Continues to Tout Stable, Predictable Funding for NAS

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From left to right: Editor-in-Chief of Air Transport World Karen Walker, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, and President and CEO of JetBlue Airways Robin Hayes.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi spoke during the Air Traffic Control Reform panel at the Sept. 13 Airlines for America (A4A) Commercial Aviation Industry Summit in Washington, D.C., moderated by Editor-in-Chief of Air Transport World, Karen Walker. President and CEO of JetBlue Airways Robin Hayes joined Rinaldi for the discussion.

Potential air traffic control reform was pushed into the spotlight earlier this year with House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster’s Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act and the response of vocal detractors of any change to the National Airspace System (NAS). The status quo remains unacceptable for the NAS, Rinaldi said.

Walker opened the panel by discussing the irony of the United States’ current situation in the aviation industry, specifically with technology. She asked how a country that prides itself in state-of-the-art technology could continue to embrace an air traffic management system that is antiquated and years behind other countries, believing the problem is not technological, but political.

Rinaldi said that funding uncertainty continues to plague the NAS. Another shutdown threat looms, with a Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to pass a funding bill. These starts and stops continue to be exceptionally disruptive to the NAS.

The inability of the FAA to long-term plan has affected both the staffing levels and technological capabilities of the system, tying up the NAS in a bureaucratic mess of red tape that Congress has been unable to break through.

“We’ve got to do something different,” Rinaldi said. “As I travel around the world, I just start shaking my head. We are the best, but we don’t have the best equipment.”

“If we had the best equipment, just maybe we could enhance and improve the safety and efficiency of the system that much more,” he said.

While the NAS is operating well now, if users and investors continue to push the system to the limit, it is only a matter of time before it folds under itself. Hayes described the system as a “vital strategic asset,” adding that we must not wait to change until the NAS falls into crisis.

One way to combat the mounting challenges is to invest in new technology. Updating to NextGen technology that was new in the 1990s still puts the NAS behind by nearly 30 years. Change is the only way to enable the NAS to advance at a competitive global pace.

Rinaldi explained that the NAS is so far behind in technology, that when UK air traffic controllers came to visit an American tower, they believed that NATCA was “punking” them by taking them into a museum because they could not believe that controllers work every day with such outdated technology.

Walker described a “loop of inaction” in Congress in regards to addressing air traffic control reform and adopting new technology into the work environment, saying that the word “privatization” has been thrown around too often when the type of reform being advocated for is not privatization. Rinaldi agreed, adding that privatization is already occurring in many forms in the NAS, from telephone lines to towers.

“This is not a new concept,” said Rinaldi. “There are 252 air traffic control towers run by three private companies. The FAA is not taking on new air traffic control towers.”

He continued, “If a new tower is going up in a town, it’s going into the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program. The FAA just does not have the resources to put them there. Privatization as a word is irrelevant.”

Three former FAA chief operating officers have called for the restructuring of the air traffic control system. Creating a more dynamic and streamlined aviation system will allow the NAS to evolve and enable the modernization of facilities in real time.

Rinaldi explained that in 2013, during sequestration budget cuts, the FAA looked at closing over 170 FCTs, not for efficiency or safety, but to save money. The FAA moved to a fix-on-fail policy for critical equipment in the workplace to save money. The FAA also stopped hiring air traffic controllers for an entire year, again, to save money. He said that this continues to contribute to the staffing crisis facing the NAS as there is a 27-year low of fully certified air traffic controllers.

“If we do nothing, we will shrink aviation, which in turn will shrink jobs,” said Rinaldi.

He explained how the aviation industry is an economic driver and doing nothing will also shrink the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which should actually be seeing growth based on a projected one billion passengers served in the upcoming year.

“I’ve studied the NAVCANADA model and transition very thoroughly and they were in the rut we are in,” said Rinaldi. “They couldn’t get new equipment, facilities were struggling, staffing was bad, pay was stagnant, and the controllers were actually the catalyst behind the change.”

Despite the tough transition, NAV CANADA was able to streamline its bureaucracy and management structure and modernize equipment, Rinaldi said. Now, when developing new equipment, he added, the controller, engineer, and pilot are at the table, testing the equipment as it is created and deployed, even selling the finished product around the world. But, he cautioned, he does not believe the United States should be NAVCANADA.

“I look at NAV CANADA and it works well in their country,” he said. “I think we can develop our own. The reality is we have to do something. In 2012, we ran just short of 750 million passengers. In 2015, we were just short of 900 million passengers. Less controllers, same equipment, more demand. What is going to give as we cross that billion passenger mark in a year and we’re still stuck in the antiquated bureaucratic-laden process?”

The panel concluded with both panelists describing what they’d like to see for the NAS a year from now. Hayes said that he would be tireless in his advocacy for change in the hope that while it is not the easy answer, the case for change is present and everyone in the aviation community must continue to fight for its success.

Rinaldi said he would love to see Congress give the aviation community the tools to build the best system possible through stable, predictable funding. In regards to what type of reform Rinaldi could support, he said that the status quo or a for-profit model is completely unacceptable. NATCA’s vision would be to have stable funding and the ability to continue to protect the finest workers in the United States in their efforts to run the safest aviation system in the world.

Watch the panel (beginning at 1:35:28 of the conference video).