Just say no

WASHINGTON, D.C.— A push to privatize the air traffic control system and/or put it on a fee basis is heating up, but two recent hearings in the House of Representatives indicate that members of the aviation subcommittee will have nothing to do with it.

The subcommittee is looking into the modernization of ATC and its first hearing on the subject in April focused on the FAA’s inability to meet deadlines, stay within budget or prepare for expected increases in flight operations.

“”Since I joined the House of Representatives in 1993, the FAA has had a reputation of being one of the federal government’s most dysfunctional agencies,”” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the subcommittee. “”What started out 23 years ago as a 13-year program of modernization to cost $2.5 billion now has reached $35 billion and is still at least 10 years away from completion.””

Mica, who noted that the national airspace system has remained basically unchanged since the 1960s, predicted that — unless the ways of doing business are changed — “”clogged airspace, bad weather and system outages will create massive delays and backups throughout the system.””

The system is old: Air traffic control towers average 30 years; TRACON facilities average 34 years; primary en-route radar systems average 27 years; and en route control centers average 40 years — and are rated by the General Services Administration as being in poor condition.

Ken Mead, Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, warned there are “”major challenges”” in the path of FAA modernization efforts. Lower cost micro-jets could have tremendous repercussions on air traffic levels; while a 2% shift in today’s commercial passengers could result in triple the number of flights. He declared the drop of revenue in the aviation trust fund — resulting from lower airline fares — increases financial problems. FAA revenue this year will be $3.6 billion less than forecast. In fiscal year 2006, the FAA’s budget is expected to exceed forecast trust fund revenue by $2 billion. “”We are not going to be able to save our way out of our problems,”” he said.

Throughout the hearing, it was mentioned several times that a new source of revenue is needed. This, coupled with repeated comments about the bureaucracy of government purchasing, gave the hearing an undercurrent suggesting that dramatic changes are to come.

Three committee members zeroed in on general aviation issues. Rep. Eleanor Holms Norton (D-DC) chided the FAA and DOT witnesses about keeping general aviation out of Reagan Washington National Airport, citing how the closure adversely affects the economy of the District of Columbia. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said keeping general aviation out “”is the most absurd thing we have done.””

“”How much money is saved by not allowing general aviation into Reagan Airport,”” asked Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). “”That sounds like a trick question,”” Russell Chew, chief operating officer, FAA air traffic organization, answered with a smile, adding that it saves nothing. “”That’s exactly what I mean,”” Hayes retorted.

The second hearing centered on how other nations have commercialized their ATC systems. Since 1987, 38 nations commercialized their systems, Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers. He said some nations have used fees to cover costs and — in some cases — to make a profit, but added that even with user fees, many governments had to bail out the private companies.

Committee members noted that it is difficult to compare operations in other nations with the aviation activity in the United States. About 60% of the flights in the world occur in the United States, which handles six times more traffic than the second largest country.

No other country has anywhere near the general aviation activity of the U.S, added Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee. He noted the Cleveland Center alone handles more traffic than the entire Canadian ATC.

Dieter Kaden, CEO and chairman of the German Air Navigation Service, also testified, telling how efficiency of that country’s ATC has improved since commercialization.

However, GAO’s Dillingham said studies of other nations could not show “”before and after”” efficiencies because there were no benchmarks before commercialization.

Hayes asked if operations were counted the same in all countries, which would be necessary to determine the true results of commercialization. Witnesses could give no answer. Adding his opposition to any privatization of the ATC, Hayes said there is a strong movement by the airline industry to charge general aviation.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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