This week, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Director Elaine Kamarck moderated a panel discussion on the future of air traffic control. Wednesday’s panel at one of the most prominent public policy organizations in Washington, D.C., put the spotlight back on the many reasons why reform is urgently needed. Session panelists included NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James H. Burnley, Lexington, Ky., Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Eric Frankl, and AOPA Senior Vice President Jim Coon.
Gilbert used the high-profile panel discussion to narrow the focus to the core points and state NATCA’s position clearly. She explained that funding continues to be unpredictable and stop-and-go. She said that while appropriators do an incredible job writing good bills that address the needs of the system, those bills are not the ones signed into law. “We see continuing resolutions instead of those bills,” she said. “We have never said the funding is not adequate,” she said. “What we’ve said is the funding is uncertain.”
Frankl said that when he started his airport career in 1989, appropriation bills and FAA bills were steady and regular. But in the last 15 years, during a lack of regular order, he said, “that has become worse.” He said that the question is whether you think it will get any better as we struggle to get through appropriations every year.
Burnley cited that there have been 28 extensions to FAA authorization during the past decade – including the current extension that runs through March 31, 2018. The long list of Federal Aviation Administration authorization extensions has meant more uncertainty on the future of the air traffic control system.
This heightens the level of concern at a time when the funding of the system has never been more unstable and unpredictable. Yet another government shutdown threat looms early next month. “The stress on the system is going to continue,” Gilbert said, and if some users are not feeling it now, they soon will. She added, “We continue to see the chipping away of our system.”
Uncertainty also clouds the status of one solution to the problem – the 21st Century AIRR Act that NATCA supports. The bill has not yet been brought up for a vote on the House floor. Meanwhile, opponents of the bill have used the vacuum in the news cycle to raise the volume, misrepresent the situation, and unleash over-the-top rhetoric.
“A lot of entities started from ‘no,’ and stayed on ‘no,’” Gilbert said. She explained that those entities should instead come into the room and figure out what the next steps are instead of trying to scare the flying public and recreational users and general aviation.
The news media, Gilbert added, needs headlines that will capture the attention of the reader. With an issue like reform, there are many interested and passionate stakeholders, so the issue is tailor-made for contentious stories.
“We’re starting these discussions with a system that we all agree is something we’re very proud of,” she said. “It is a very complex, very safe system.”
Gilbert explained that when you start from there, you say, ‘why change?’ It becomes easier for those in opposition to throw safety issues at it. She said it’s easier to get people to read headlines that only capture what the opposition says because we’re starting from a safe system. She underlined the importance of sustaining that system.
Gilbert urged everyone to not wait for a crisis to act. "Let's not wait until we get to broken,” she said. “We can’t sustain what’s happening today, the status quo is not working — what is next? There are a lot of ideas on ’what next?’ is, and we’re all on board with having that discussion to get to next.”
One significant issue that has resulted in part from the unstable funding is the worsening air traffic controller staffing crisis. New staffing numbers show the current total of fully certified controllers has fallen to 10,554, which is a three-decade low and represents the fifth straight year it has dropped. The total is also more than 2,300 short of the FAA’s operational staffing target. Gilbert said mandatory overtime is making a bad situation even worse in many facilities.
“There’s no excuse for that,” Burnley said of the staffing crisis. “We’re stretching our system too, too tight,” Gilbert said. “We need to put appropriate resources behind it.”
As the discussion expanded on the 21st Century AIRR Act, Gilbert restated NATCA’s position.
“NATCA’s position has been very clear: This is the bill that’s before us,” she said. “We support it because it meets our four core principles. It would maintain a safe and efficient system, it would maintain a secure relationship between the employer and the employees that safeguard that system, it allows for stability and funding, it addresses the integration of new users, modernization of not just equipment but facilities as well.”
Coon reiterated AOPA’s opposition to reform, even though the 21st Century AIRR Act preserves the fuel tax method that general aviation currently uses to pay into the system and does not increase their fees. Public policy expert Dorothy Robyn, who posed a question to Coon from the audience during the panel, said GA opposition is the common denominator in efforts to reform air traffic control both during the Clinton Administration, which she was a part of, and now. It’s both good politics and good public policy to hold GA harmless, Robyn said, adding, “you want GA to take advantage of the safety benefits of the system.”
Despite the disagreement on the need for reform, Coon had kind words for air traffic controllers, whom he called, “the best performing function of the system.” Controllers, he said, “do an amazing job getting people to and from every day.”