On Thursday, June 23, NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert spoke at the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) Contract Tower Workshop, hosted in conjunction with the U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Gilbert gave attendees an in-depth look at NATCA’s year, and insight on current challenges facing the National Airspace System (NAS).
NATCA represents over 19,000 safety professionals in the FAA and Department of Defense, as well as over 300 air traffic controllers in the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program. Gilbert explained that these controllers are essential to the largest, most complex airspace system in the world.
Aviation is a major driver of the U.S. economy, supporting nearly 12 million jobs and contributing $1.5 trillion to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Two million passengers fly on 70,000 flights every single day in the NAS. Gilbert explained that safety continues to be the priority for NATCA as air traffic controllers continue to face challenges.
Gilbert reminded the attendees that due to sequestration in 2013, the system faced senseless cuts to aviation funding, including the threat of closing 149 towers, many of which were FCTs. This was done not in the interest of safety, but to save money.
“NATCA, AAAE, and others in the aviation industry worked together to highlight the flawed and dangerous cuts of sequestration, and with the help of some in Congress, we were able to stop the closing of all the towers on the list,” said Gilbert.
She further explained that the current political environment, budget deficit, and other extenuating circumstances have all contributed to a lack of regular order in the appropriations and budget processes, and that a stand-alone Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill has not been signed into law since 2006.
Instead, Gilbert said, stop-and-start funding in the form of continuing resolutions, omnibuses, minibuses, cromnibuses lasting weeks, sometimes months, and if we are really lucky, the majority of the fiscal year. Current FAA authorization is set to expire on July 15. Without an extension, the authority to collect aviation taxes will lapse, and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund will be deprived of more than $30 million a day — funding needed for air traffic control, airport development, and other aviation programs. This uncertainty in funding has pushed dialogue on air traffic control reform to the forefront of the aviation community and Congress, a dialogue Gilbert expects to continue into the next Congress.
“The question for NATCA is, is the status quo acceptable?,” said Gilbert. “To us, it is not, and that is why we continue to remain open to change that makes sense.”
Gilbert explained that any change NATCA supports would have to ensure:
1. Safety and efficiency remain the top priorities. This means that maintenance cannot be allowed to lag and poor staffing must not be allowed to reduce capacity of the NAS.
2. A stable, predictable funding stream that adequately supports air traffic control services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term technological modernization projects, preventative maintenance, and ongoing modernization to the physical infrastructure.
3. A dynamic aviation system that continues to provide services to all segments of the aviation community, from commercial passenger carriers and cargo haulers, to business jets, to general aviation, from the major airports to those in small communities and rural America. NATCA cannot emphasize enough how important it is that a new system continues providing services to the diverse users of today. The United States has a vibrant general aviation community that relies on air traffic control services. Rural America’s economic success is connected to the access created with a comprehensive airspace system that serves even the most remote areas.
4. Lastly, the workforce must be fully protected in their employment relationship.
“As partners in aviation, we all want the same thing: a safe, modern, and high capacity aviation system,” said Gilbert. “In order to have those things, we must work together to ensure our towers and radar rooms are properly equipped and appropriately staffed to ensure we have the safest and most efficient procedures in place.”
Gilbert explained that no matter where air traffic control services come from, no one understands the system better or takes pride in the system more than the controllers that operate it. Collaboration, safety reporting, and fostering an environment in which the workforce feels they are a part of a team is crucial to success. Gilbert said that this collaboration allows NATCA and the FAA to improve procedures, modernize and deploy new technologies, and institutionalize a culture of non-punitive safety reporting.
“The FAA has found that there is value in respecting their workforce, and that by working together with those that operate the system, they can not only meet the needs of the users but also can greatly improve the system and enhance safety,” said Gilbert.
“We all have a stake in the economic engine that is the U.S. airspace system,” she stated. “I would challenge each of us to look forward, think about what we would like to see and work together to get it done.”