Air Traffic Controllers: Privatization Possible, But FAA Funding Comes First

By / May 4, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is open to reforming some air traffic control functions, but the organization’s top priority is to gain full, stable funding for the FAA.

Editor’s note: This post has been clarified to emphasize that NACTA has yet to take a stance on the Mica bill.

With government funding for the Federal Aviation Administration set to expire October 1, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) recently indicated an openness to discussions of privatizing some aspects of air traffic control—which would minimize the impact of the unpredictable federal budgeting process on the agency’s ability to operate.

It comes amid an ongoing effort by Republican members of Congress to de-federalize the FAA—something highlighted by legislation introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), which would privatize some national air traffic control functions. The plan would establish a private organization, the Employee Stock Ownership Corporation, which, Mica’s office says, would put the airport industry’s various stakeholders in charge of the new air traffic control system.

“We’ve tried reform and reorganization, and we’ve created positions like the chief operating officer within the Air Traffic Organization, but unfortunately, our ATC technology and working conditions for air traffic controllers continue to fall further behind the rest of the world,” said Mica, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, when his proposal was released in April.

While the group has yet to take a stance on the current legislation, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi had already expressed openness to discussing a shake-up of the status quo—as long as the federal agency’s own needs are met first. While willing to consider some changes to national air traffic control operations, the association isn’t advocating for full privatization. Rather, it’s using this proposed legislation to highlight the importance of funding a system in critical need of financial support.

“I’m willing to have those conversations and move forward on it, as long as we find a stable, predictable funding stream,” Rinaldi said in a speech to the Aero Club of Washington. “We will fight, and oppose, any model that strives to make a profit from air traffic control services.”

The opportunity for renewed, more stable FAA funding marks a pivotal juncture for NATCA’s 20,000 members.

“For years, the FAA has been faced with unstable, unpredictable funding where interruptions in the funding stream have negatively affected all aspects of the FAA,” Rinaldi told the panel at a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing in March, according to The Hill. “The agency has had to spread its resources thinly between fully staffing a 24/7 operation, as well as the modernization and daily maintenance required to sustain an aging infrastructure.”

In their push to remove air traffic control from the federal government’s domain, supporters of the private-sector model are in effect advocating for a structural overhaul of this critical service. But Rinaldi is redirecting the conversation to focus on the heart of the problem: securing reliable funding for the FAA.

“We understand that addressing funding makes a lot of people go toward the structure of the FAA,” Rinaldi said in his speech to the Aero Club. “But we must agree that funding—a secure, stable funding system—is the first thing that must be agreed to.”

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