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Difficult Questions for Advocates of Independent Air Traffic Control Operations | Commentary

By Kevin DeGood  In the early days of aviation, a handful of air traffic controllers used to track planes by placing wooden markers on large table maps. In order to send instructions, controllers had to call airline companies by phone and have them relay messages to pilots. A lot has changed since then.  

Today, a highly trained staff of 14,800 air traffic controllers safely and efficiently handle more than 68,000 flights a day. As a result of decades of federal investments in research, training, and infrastructure, the United States has the largest and safest aviation system in the world. However, recent funding cuts imposed by the budget sequestration deal combined with a partial shutdown in 2011 of Federal Aviation Administration  programs and operations have opened up a debate about possibly turning over responsibility for air traffic control to an independent air navigation service provider (ANSP). Proponents of creating an independent ANSP have argued that the aviation industry and air travel are simply too important to be subject to the budgetary uncertainty and political dysfunction in Washington.  

In theory, the new ANSP would be a nonprofit corporation or public-private partnership with operational and budgetary independence from Congress. The new ANSP would also provide air carriers with a greater say in questions of air traffic operations and governance. Such a major transition raises two important questions. The first is about funding and the second about public policy control.  

Currently, aviation programs, including air traffic control, are funded through a combination of taxes on aviation fuel and passenger tickets as well as annual appropriations. Overall, appropriations cover 29 percent of FAA's $16 billion annual budget.  

In order to achieve true independence from Congress, air carriers want the new ANSP to retain most, if not all, of the taxes currently levied on aviation fuel and passengers. This is a bold attempt on the part of industry at cherry-picking especially since aviation taxes have failed to keep pace with system costs for years. In the past eight years, the share of FAA's budget covered by appropriations has risen from 18 to 29 percent. Splitting off air traffic control would result in an increasing public subsidy to the aviation industry as taxpayers would be left to pay for core FAA functions that aviation taxes cover today.  

And while fights over taxation tend to dominate Congressional attention and lobbyist time sheets, the second question about policy control is even more complex and challenging. For example, Congress has consistently promoted safety as a fundamental goal of federal aviation policy. This policy goal finds substance and expression not as a line of legislative text but in the thousands of decisions and rules that collectively govern labor standards and daily air traffic control operations.  

The new ANSP may assume responsibility for answering essential safety questions such as: How long is the training program for new controllers? How often should controllers be required to update their skills as technology evolves? How many hours of rest must a controller have before a new shift begins? How many years of experience should a controller have before working at the busiest airports? How many control activities should be transitioned to computer automation?  

The answers to these questions have both safety and fiscal implications. The truth is quality costs money. We are left wondering: When economic times are tough, will air carriers use their influence to pressure the ANSP to cut costs and aviation taxes? In short, would the new ANSP become captured by industry concerns over time at the potential expense of safety?  

Air carriers have also called for a substantial overhaul of FAA taxes as part of the transition. They have argued for years that the current set of aviation taxes are inefficient since there is often a mismatch between the total taxes charged on a given flight relative to the costs imposed on the air traffic control system. This argument is not without merit. After all, most countries charge air carries based on aircraft weight and distance traveled rather than fuel consumption and passenger ticket prices. However, enacting such reform does not require a change in governance.  

Given the successful safety track record of the FAA and the risk that a new form of governance might undermine the ability of Congress to ensure a safe national airspace system and exert effective policy control, the burden of proof is on advocates to demonstrate that the current system is so broken that a major change in governance is warranted.  

Kevin DeGood is the Director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress.  The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

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