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Battle looms over next steps for air traffic control

Kelly Yamanouchi, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

Delta argued during last year's debate that the FAA is making steady progress on its multibillion-dollar air traffic control modernization project, known as NextGen. Former Delta CEO Richard Anderson was chairman of a NextGen advisory committee.

With Delta now led by Anderson's successor, CEO Ed Bastian, the airline on Monday released a more neutral statement.

"Delta remains committed to working with the FAA and other aviation industry stakeholders to make U.S. airspace more efficient, with a goal of reducing delays, improving traffic flows and enhancing airline performance," the company said.

The question of how to fund and structure the nation's air traffic control system is a key issue as the FAA faces another congressional fight over re-authorization, with its spending authority expiring Sept. 30.

A4A, as the airline lobbying group is known, says removing air traffic control from the FAA would make air traffic control less dependent on Congress for appropriations and less subject to political whims that led to sequestration and a government shutdown in recent years, hindering the FAA from long-term planning for NextGen.

NextGen's main thrust is to shift the system to satellite-based navigation with digital communication, which can allow more direct routing and closer spacing between planes, boosting system capacity. Work on NextGen improvements started in 2007 and is expected to continue through around 2030.

"Progress on NextGen has been slow" because it's "trapped in the politics of Washington, D.C.," said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy. She said $6 billion is sitting in the FAA aviation trust fund "when the system is really in need of modernization."

Trump "obviously has an understanding that the system is woefully outdated, and I think that's a good first step in trying to reach a resolution," Pinkerton said.

Privatizing air traffic control fits into a broader "small-government" philosophy.

"Being part of the federal government is not very conducive to efficient results," said Rui Neiva, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, which released an updated report last week in favor of spinning off air traffic control from the FAA. Other governments have done so successfully, including Canada.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union last year supported a proposal to spin off air traffic control, saying it would "make safety the top priority," ensure stable funding and protect the controller workforce.

Air traffic controllers union president Paul Rinaldi in a written statement emphasized the importance of a "stable, predictable funding stream" to ensure progress on NextGen continues and "is not undermined."

But consumer groups that formed a group called Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization say "the true incentives behind privatizing our nation's ATC system (are) corporate control at the exclusion of workers and taxpayers."

Opponents also note that foreign examples of successful privately run systems cited by supporters involve much smaller systems than the one controlling U.S. airspace.

(c)2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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