Air traffic controllers in the United States are a part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) but Congress is seriously considering changing that. In this episode, we examine a plan being developed to transfer control of the nation’s air traffic to a new non-profit corporation.
Also, with former FBI Directory Jim Comey’s testimony to Congress dominating the news cycle, we take a trip down memory lane to the Bush years when Jim Comey testified before Congress in one of the most riveting moments in Congressional hearing history.
Executive Producer: Troy Heinritz
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- Article: So What’s the Deal with Air Traffic Control Reform? by Aarian Marshall, Wired, June 6, 2017.
- Article: Inspector General Reports on FAA’s Efforts to Modernize the NAS by Rob Mark, Flying Mag, May 25, 2017.
- Article: The Wait for ATC Privatization is Over as White House Budget Emerges by Rob Mark, Flying Mag, March 16, 2017.
- Article: Shuster admits relationship with airline lobbyist by John Bresnahan, Anna Palmer, and Jake Sherman, Politico, April 16, 2015.
- Article: FAA seeks new air traffic controllers – no experience needed by Tanita Gaither, Hawaii News Now, 2014.
- Article: The Real Battle Over Air Traffic Control by Robert Poole and Dorothy Robyn, Reason Foundation, November 3, 2003.
- Boston University: Dorothy Robyn Bio
- Hartzell Prop: Joseph W. Brown Bio
- Office of Inspector General: Calvin L. Scovel III Bio
- NATCA: Paul Rinaldi Bio
- Reason Foundation: Company FAQs
- Reason Foundation: Robert Poole Bio
- GovTrack: H.R. 4441 Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act Overview
- GovTrack: H.R. 4441 – Supporters vs Opponents
- GovTrack: H.R. 4441 – Text
- OpenSecrets: Rep. Bill Shuster
- OpenSecrets: Rep. Bill Shuster – Campaign Finance
- OpenSecrets: Airlines for America
- YouTube: James Comey testifies about Gonzales pressuring Ashcroft to OK spying
Sound Clip Sources
Hearing: Air Traffic Control Reform, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, May 17, 2017.
Watch on CSPAN
- The Honorable Calvin Scovel, III, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation
- Joseph W. Brown, President, Hartzell Propeller, Inc.
- Mr. Robert W. Poole, Jr., Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation
- Mr. Paul M. Rinaldi, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Assocation
- Ms. Dorothy Robyn, Independent Policy Analyst
Timestamps & Transcripts
- 3:33 Chairman Bill Shuster: Today we’ll focus on the need for air traffic control reform, divesting the high-tech service, 24/7 service business, from government and shifting it to an independent not-for-profit entity.
- 4:20 Chairman Bill Shuster: Everyone should be reminded of what happens if we choose the status quo. It means our system will be subject to more budget constraints, sequestration, and threats of government shutdowns. Sequestration isn’t gone. In 2013 sequestration led to furloughs and reduced operations, controlled our hiring, and training suffered, and the FAA bureaucrats tried to shut down contract towers. Fiscal constraints continue to be tight, as so in the federal budget, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, and it may get worse. We continue to rely on the unstable, dysfunctional, annual appropriations cycle. We have had no stand-alone transportation appropriations bill since 2006, and over that time period, Congress has passed 42 continuing resolutions to keep government doors open. The FAA also relies on authorizing legislation, and it took Congress 23 short-term extensions over five years before it passed previous long-term FAA authorization bill. Under these conditions, the FAA bureaucracy has been trying to undertake a high-tech modernization of air traffic control system for over three decades. It’s not working, and it’s never going to work.
- 5:52 Chairman Bill Shuster: Some argue that the latest attempt to modernize NextGen is showing some signs of progress, but we all know any progress is incremental at best and only in locations where the FAA partnered with the private sector. And let’s remember the name NextGen was really just a rebranding of the FAA’s ongoing failed efforts to modernize the system. NextGen is just a marketing term, not an actual technology or innovation, but it sounds catchier so Congress will fund it year after year. But the bottom line is there should be far more progress by now. Money has never been the problem; Congress has provided more than $7.4 billion for NextGen since 2004. Results of the problem: according to the FAA’s own calculation, the return on the taxpayers’ 7.4 billion invested has only been about 2 billion in benefits. And we’ve still got a long way to go. According to the DOT inspector general in 2014, the projected initial cost for NextGen was $40 billion, but they’ve said it could double or triple and be delayed another decade. Over the years, the FAA has described NextGen as transformation of America’s air transportation network. They also said it will forever redefine how we manage the system. But in 2015 the National Research Council confirmed what was already becoming painfully clear. According to the NRC, the original version of NextGen is not what was being implemented. It is not broadly transformational and is not fundamental change in the way the FAA handles air traffic. Only in the federal government would such a dismal record be considered a success.
- 7:40 Chairman Bill Shuster: Some have proposed targeting reforms to fix the FAA’s problems, but that’s an approach we’ve already tried many, many times, starting in the 1980s. Since 1995, Congress has passed various reforms to allow the FAA to run more like a business. Procurement reform in 1995 for the FAA to develop a more flexible acquisition-management system. Additional reforms in 1995 exempt the FAA from most federal personnel rules and allow the FAA to be able to implement more flexible rules for hiring, training, compensating, and assigning personnel. Procurement reforms in 1996 developed a cost accounting system. Additional personnel reforms in 1996 allowed FAA to negotiate pay. Organizational reforms in 2000 to establish a COO position, additional forms to allow greater pay so the FAA could recruit good candidates, particularly for a COO position. Additional reform in 2000 by the executive order to create the Air Traffic Organization. Organizational reforms in 2003 to establish the Joint Planning and Development Office to better coordinate NextGen. Reforms in 2012 to establish a chief NextGen officer. Property management reforms in 2012 to allow a better process for realignment and consolidation of facilities. All have failed to result in the FAA being run more like a business. The FAA has always performed like a massive bureaucracy and will continue to.
- 9:33 Chairman Bill Shuster: Last year’s bill that passed out of committee will serve as a framework for new legislation, but we are open to change. We want to talk to people and get their ideas, and that’s what we hope to hear today.
- 9:45 Chairman Bill Shuster: Our air traffic control reform proposal will be based on the following principles: create an independent not-for-profit corporation to provide air traffic services; fund the new service provider by fees assessed for air traffic service; free the new service provider from governmental dysfunction, political interference, and the uncertainty of the federal-budget process; create a governance structure that is right sized and balanced; and a board with sole fiduciary responsibility to the organization—and I need to repeat that—fiduciary responsibility. That’s a legal term. If you’re on a board of directors in the United States and you have the fiduciary responsibility, it’s not to who appointed you to the board; it’s to the board, it’s to that organization is who you’re responsible for, and that’s the law. That’s just not some pie in the sky. People can be removed and be prosecuted if they’re not doing their fiduciary responsibilities.
- 11:47 Chairman Bill Shuster: Give the new service provider the ability to access financial markets, leverage private funding for multi-year capital projects needed to modernize the system.
- 12:35 Chairman Bill Shuster: The only way to realize these benefits is to get the government out of the way. As President Ronald Regan said, government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem. And we see all over the world people turning to the private sector—whether it’s Europe or it’s Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada—look around the world: countries, governments, are looking to partner with the private sector because they see they do it better.
- 13:01 Chairman Bill Shuster: Since the introduction of the Air Act over a year ago, this has been an ongoing process of education and discussion. We’ve held over 130 meetings with stakeholders, including both supporters and opponents of the Air Act. We’ve had numerous meetings with members of the House, the Senate, the White House, and other committees. These meetings have been extremely productive and give us new ideas to improve the legislation.
- 14:20 Chairman Bill Shuster: Air traffic control is not an inherently governmental function; it’s a 24/7 technology service. For those who worry that the system is too complex, I would say this: the most complex thing in the air space is not the air traffic control system, it’s the airplane. It’s the people at Boeing and Airbus and Cessna and the people that build these aircraft—that’s the most complicated thing in the system. And the FAA already oversees those highly sophisticated private-sector aircraft manufacturing, maintenance, and flight operations at arm’s length. We don’t build airplanes today, the government does, and that’s the most complex thing in the system.
- 16:26 Rep Peter DeFazio: We are now on the cusp of a 21st century system that will be the envy of the world. And other experts—MITRE Corporation, others—say a massive change now, where you cleave the FAA into parts, you leave the most vital thing to our manufacturers—certification, subject to appropriations, sequestrations, and shutdowns—you leave the most vital thing that is important to the American public, which is safety and oversight of safety, subject to sequestration, shutdowns, and political meddling. The only thing that gets moved is the ATO, and the ATO would be moved and essentially effectively controlled by the airlines. I know that the airlines aren’t here today, perhaps because they haven’t looked so great recently in public, and I’d also note that the airlines themselves have had outages 36 times—major outages—36 times since 2015. I’m not aware that the national air traffic control system has had a major disruption, with exception of deliberate sabotage by a contractor who knew how to get the system and the backup system. But the airlines, on their own, with no sabotage, have managed to melt down their dispatch and their reservation systems 36 times, stranding millions of people, so they can do it better, right?
- 18:15 Rep Peter DeFazio: In terms of funding, the FAA has currently projected, over the next decade, to be 97% self-funded. Unfortunately, the way our colleagues around here and the budget process works, despite the fact they’re self-funded, they can be sequestered or shut down. That’s a simple, simple fix. Take it off budget, make it into a trust-funded program. They are raising the revenues. That’s a simple fix. No, we’re going to cleave it in half, put vital functions over here—still subject to sequestration shutdown—and take this one part and put it over here and say somehow they’re going to self-fund. Now, the question, of course, is, how are they going to self-fund? The airlines have told me time and time again, they hate the ticket tax, they hate the ticket tax; they say, that’s our money. I say, no, it’s not your money; I buy a ticket, I pay the tax, the tax goes to the government; it’s not your money. They say, no, no, that affects the price of the ticket and competition and everything else; it’s a horrible thing. So, if they do away with the ticket tax, there goes 70% of the revenues. Well, what are they going to put in its place? Oh, it’s going to be a per-operation charge or something; we don’t know. Congress will have no say over this.
- 22:11 Rep Peter DeFazio: See all that yellow? That’s the U.S. That is going to be totally ADS-B, satellite-based, in 2020, with an exception—the airlines that petitioned and been given permission from the FAA for exceptions because many of their older planes do not have modern-enough GPS systems to use the new ADS-B. The airlines again have petitioned that they have a number more years before those planes would be able to use the ADS-B system. Not the FAA, the airlines themselves.
- 28:38 Rep Peter DeFazio: They can set user fees. User fees, I consider to be taxes. I consider the ticket tax to be a user fee, but we can argue semantics over that. But they are going to determine how the system is funded, which is tantamount to taxation without review by the Ways and Means committee or Congress.
- 37:00 Joseph Brown: Now, as a pilot, 4 to 500 hours a year, my office is the cockpit; and when I fly, I find a modern system, a high-functioning system, and I’ve seen it evolve over time, right before my eyes. I find controllers that do their job well, I find easy access, and powerful technology. I can file a flight plan from my smartphone and get my proposed route back, before I get to the airport, in a text. When I take off, I have GPS navigation systems on board that allow me to fly point to point all over this country. Couple months ago, I took off out of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and got cleared direct to Burlington, Vermont, 1300 miles ahead. And while I’m flying, I have the veil of safety brought to you by ADS-B, which is in fact deployed, giving me traffic callouts and separation cues and weather in my route of flight. And when I come in for landing, I can pick from 3,000 precision approaches, brought to me by a NextGen feature called WAAS, including at my home airport, which I value tremendously on foul-weather days. So, the bottom line for me is, NextGen is working—it works for me every day—and it’s getting stronger all the time. And from a technology standpoint, I believe we’re on the right track.
- 43:30 Robert Poole: Business Roundtable group began in 2011, made an initial presentation to A4A in the spring of 2012. We got a pretty cool, if not negative, reception at that point. No one wanted to restart the battles that had raged over this issue in previous decades. Everything changed in the spring of 2013, thanks to the sequester. Controller furloughs closed FAA Academy; threatened closure of 189 contract towers got everybody’s attention. In response, A4A, NATCA, and AOPA all requested new conversations with the BRT working group. And in May 2013, all three groups in the conference room at Business Roundtable agreed that an air traffic control corporation, converting the ATO into a corporation, self-funded, and out of the federal budget was the best approach. After this happened, that fall, Governor Engler and several others briefed Chairman Shuster on the proposal. This was not coming from the airlines. BRT group included a former FAA administrator, a former chief operating officer of the ATO, two former senior officials of USDOT and several consultants. Our governing model, as I said, was patterned after Nav Canada’s. Their stakeholder board represents airlines, general aviation, unions, and the government plus four other private citizens selected by the stakeholder members.
- 47:50 Paul Rinaldi: NATCA members guide approximately 70,000 flights per day in the United States, ensuring over 900 million passengers arrive safely at their destination every year. The United States Airspace System is considered the gold standard in aviation community, but that status is at risk. Unstable, unpredictable funding and status quo threatens it. We need a stable, reliable, predictable funding stream to operate our current system and allow for growth in the United States aviation system.
- 48:30 Paul Rinaldi: We also oppose any system that would put ATC in a for-profit model. In order for NATCA to consider a support of any proposal, it must meet our four core principles of reform. First, any new system must keep the safety and the efficiency of the National Airspace System the top priority. Second, any reform must protect our members’ employment relationship. This must maintain our members’ pay, benefits, retirement system, healthcare system, as well as the work rules in our contract. Third, any reform system must have a stable, predictable funding stream adequately enough to support air traffic control services, growth, new users, staffing, hiring, training, long-term modernization projects. Also, this reform must provide a stable funding stream through a transition period. Fourth, any reform must maintain a dynamic, diverse aviation system that continues to provide services to all segments of the aviation community and to all airports across America.
- 50:10 Paul Rinaldi: Please don’t take NATCA’s position as a need for stable, predictable funding as to mean the appropriators have not done their job. The appropriators in both chambers of Congress, on both sides of the aisles, have done their job well. The problem stems from lack of regular order we’ve been experiencing for over 10 years now. This lack of regular order has led to stop-and-go funding, many threats of shutdown, and our current staffing shortage. We’re at a 28-year low of fully certified controllers. We have 10,532 certified controllers; approximately 3,000 of them are eligible to retire at this time.
- 50:47 Paul Rinaldi: Unstable funding has prevented on-time implementation of NextGen modernization projects. NATCA takes pride in our role in partnering with the FAA in developing and implementing important modernization projects. We have successfully worked on many over the years. Unfortunately, all have been impacted by uncertainty of funding. If you just look at FY 2018, as we approached April 28 of this year, the FAA shifted its focus from NextGen to shutdown. We, then, received a one-week funding extension, followed by a five-month funding bill. While we’re elated over the funding bill, five months is certainly no way to plan for the future in aviation. Congress needs to pass an FAA reauthorization bill that provides stable, reliable, predictable funding. Congress should exempt the FAA employees from indiscriminate sequester cuts, otherwise we will see a hiring freeze, reduced staffing, furloughs, delays, reduced capacity, and suspension of key NextGen programs.
- 52:07 Dorothy Robyn: I am a policy wonk, and I’m a Democrat. I testified before some of you during the five years I spent in the Obama administration—first as the deputy under secretary of defense for Installations and Environment and then as the GSA Public Buildings commissioner, following the scandal at GSA. Previously, I spent eight years on President Clinton’s White House economic team, where, during his second term, I was the point person on aviation and air traffic control, among other issues. A policy focus I maintained after leaving the White House, first at Brookings and then as an economic consultant. The first point I want to make this morning is that corporatization of the air traffic control system is not a radical idea, nor is it a Republican idea. The Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to do this in 1995 with its proposal to create a self-supporting government corporation—USATS—which would be run by a CEO and a board and regulated at arms’ length by the FAA. At the time, only four countries had corporatized their air traffic control system; now, more than 60 other countries have done so.
- 53:40 Dorothy Robyn: Air traffic control is not an inherently governmental function; it is not inherently governmental. Keeping planes safely separated is complex and safety-critical, but it is a purely operational process that follows well-established rules. Like running an airline or manufacturing a Boeing 787, air traffic control can be performed by a non-governmental entity as long as it is subject to oversight by FAA safety regulators whose job is inherently governmental.
- 54:50 Dorothy Robyn: Is it a monopoly? Yes, at least for now, but the telephone system was a monopoly for many years, and we didn’t have the government operate that.
- 55:03 Dorothy Robyn: The current arrangement is flawed on safety grounds. This is important. Echoing safety experts worldwide, ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, has long called for the air traffic control regulator to be independent of the operation it regulates in order to avoid conflicts of interest. We are one of the only industrial nations in which the same agency both regulates and operates the air traffic control system.
- 1:06:00 Rep Peter DeFazio: So, let’s see, if I think about it, funding, sequestration, shutdowns—that all has to do with Congress. So if we had the FAA with its current funding sources, 97% projected over the next 10 years, so just a few efficiencies would get us to 100% self-funded, without meddling, exempt them from sequestration and shutdowns, would that solve many of your concerns—I’m not saying all—but would that solve many of your concerns, Mr. Rinaldi? Paul Rinaldi: Yes.
- 1:07:01 Peter DeFazio: Who would be responsible if the ATC failed financially in this country? Joseph Brown: Well, that’s one of my risk calculus when I think about this problem. The day the assets move out of the public sector and into the private sector, we’ve moved the essence of the system and the people with it. And there’s no way we can spend one day without that system full functioning and healthy and thriving. And so all the financial risk accrues to the people, regardless of where that monopoly reports. DeFazio: So, too big to fail. Brown: Too big to fail is my concern.
- 1:10:45 Joseph Brown: First, you have to invent and deploy the technology, which has generally been the FAA’s purpose, but then the user community has to equip and in many cases change equipment to experience the benefits, and that’s exactly where we are right now, and that’s why there’s an inflection point coming up. We have ADS-B fully deployed on a nationwide basis in terms of the ground structure, but only a percentage of the aircraft flying enjoy the benefits because they are not ADS-B compliant. Likewise, that will be true of Data Comm and other technologies. So, where we are right now is the FAA has done a lot of heavy lifting, and the users have to equip.
- 1:12:08 Chairman Bill Shuster: I would oppose going for a for-profit organization.
- 1:14:08 Rep Rick Larsen: Can this system be safe and broken, or should I drive? Calvin Scovel: It is safe, of course. And that’s— Larsen: How can it be safe if it’s broken? Scovel: —certainly a big plus for the FAA. Larsen: It seems to me that there’s a fundamental argument going on here— Scovel: Yeah. Larsen: —that says we have to go to privatization because the system is broken that actually controls the airspace. And if it’s broken, I don’t know how it can be safe, and so it would support the privatization argument. However, if it can’t be safe and broken, it would seem to undermine the whole argument for privatization. Scovel: I would characterize the system currently, it certainly is safe, and the record shows that. For a number of years now, no commercial aviation fatal accidents. As far as broken, I would take issue with that characterization. I would say certainly modernization has been lagging far behind where it should be, but it’s not broken. Larsen: Well, that’s good to hear. I’ll cancel my car rental.
- 1:31:37 Joseph Brown: I don’t think the comparison of our national airspace and management system to Canada is anything other than an exercise in gleaning some observations, but it’s not proper to directly compare. I mean, for sure, in our system we’re driving a much more substantial portion of our economy out of the aviation sector and the airspace that supports it. I mean, we have 10 times more pilots, 50,000 flights a day—it’s a wholly different organization. So for me, when I think about Canada, I believe that they made a choice that they thought suited their purposes with the role of aviation and its infrastructure, but we’re faced with entirely different objectives here, and as far as I’m concerned, the system that we’ve been living in has done a masterful job of adjudicating all of the interests of stakeholders, all the interests of our expansive country and the states that are in it and their needs, and so I can applaud things they’ve done that have worked for their country, but I also very much applaud things we’ve done in our country. And I would take exception to one thing Ms. Robyn said, which is she characterized our system as a laggard. That is just false. We have the technology deployed in our system today that no other country can rival. We lead in our NextGen initiative. So I’m pretty proud of where we are, and by the way, I know it because I fly it. It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a theory.
- 1:34:15 Calvin Scovel: As you know, my office looked at the air traffic control organizations for the other four countries. And we were told by officials in those organizations that they consider part of their borrowing authority to be leveragable or to be recognized by private lenders because, ultimately, should something drastic go wrong, the government would step in behind them. I’m not representing that that would be the case here—that’s your policy call to make—I’m simply relaying what officials for other air traffic control organizations have told us about their systems. Rep Albio Sires: So, in those four countries, they were on the hook? Is that what you’re saying? Scovel: Conceivably, they may be.
- 1:38:50 Rep Mark Meadows: Why would you suggest that the federal government can do something more efficiently than, perhaps, private stakeholders? Joseph Brown: You know, my calculus— Meadows: Can the federal government run your business better than you do? Brown: I would hope not. Meadows: I would hope not either, so why would you suggest that they can do that here? Brown: Well, because we’re talking about a range of interests here that’s much larger than my business. I mean, my business, I get to pick my product, I get to pick my customers, I get to decide what I think the value proposition is, I get course corrected by competition— Meadows: And it’s efficient that way, right? Brown: Yeah, but the— Meadows: So what if we had stakeholders who were making the same exact decisions that you’re making, with some parameters that are out there, wouldn’t you think that that would be more efficient? Brown: Actually, you’ve outlined my top concern which is that if this organization picks their customers and picks their service level and picks their product— Meadows: But, but— Brown: —they are no longer going— Meadows: But the chairman’s— Brown: —to pay taxes on public— Meadows: —already said that that can’t happen. We have an airspace that is available to everybody. Unknown Speaker: Gentleman’s time’s expired. Meadows: Thank you for [unclear] point. Unknown Speaker: Mr. Brown, you can finish, if you wish. Brown: I believe that I’ve made my point which is that the thing about this enterprise, one of the things that I’m concerned with is that it’s a coalition of stakeholders with a shared purpose which is to serve their own ends. And the thing that I like about the federal role in our airspace today is that is adjudicates an enormous diversity of needs in this community, whether it’s the Alaskan pilot who’s flying kids to school or whether it’s my business in Ohio or air tractors in Olney, Texas, they all have a seat at the table, and this has been demonstrated in this room today. Meadows: Yeah, my time has expired.
- 1:49:30 Dorothy Robyn: The FAA is two hatted; it does two very different things. It regulates all aspects of aviation, and that is an inherently governmental activity. You cannot write a contract that makes it possible for the private sector to carry that out. It requires judgment calls that the private sector can’t make. It also operates in the air traffic control system. There is nothing government—that is not inherently governmental; that is operational. That is no different than when GSA goes to the private sector and has them build a building. It is not an inherently governmental activity. The idea that, yes, the regulatory part of the FFA needs help. That part needs help. I agree with Mr. Brown. The idea, though, that in order to fix that, you don’t spin off the non-governmental part; that’s illogical to me. That’s exactly what you want to do—spin off the non-inherently governmental parts so that the FAA can stick to its knitting, focus on the regulatory function.
- 2:23:25 Rep Lloyd Smucker: Can you explain why you believe a regulated air traffic service provider would be outside of democratic oversight? Joseph Brown: It’s my understanding that this would be empowered as a business that can effectively decide what it invests in, how much it borrows, what technologies it picks, maybe what— Smucker: But still with congressional oversight. Brown: Well, are we going to have a committee for how they spend their money and what they invest in and where they deploy pappies and vassies and where they put up the next Data Community tower? Because if we are, why would we carve it out?
- 2:31:00 Rep John Duncan: I chaired the aviation subcommittee for six years, from 1995 until 2001, and Speaker Gingrich asked me to hold the first hearings on the proposed air traffic control corporation—Ms. Robyn, I think, will remember that—and at that point, I think almost everybody, maybe with the exception of Mr. Poole, was opposed to it and so forth. But the chairman, Chairman Shuster’s done an amazing job and now has brought some groups and people on board that were not in favor of this proposal at the time.
- 3:11:34 Paul Rinaldi: September will be here before we know it. We will be looking at another possible government shutdown, and as I said in my opening statement, as we lead up to a shutdown, the FAA turns their attention from NextGen or from UAV implementation to shutdown procedures. For the last 10 years, it happens a couple times a year, and we lose this time; and it’s four or five weeks leading up to it, five weeks on the back end of it, and they’re not sure what sequester is going to bring us if we actually do get a budget and do get a bill passed or what type of cuts we’re going to have into the aviation system.
Hearing: Airline Customer Service, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, May 2, 2017.
- William McGee, Consumers Union Aviation Consultant
- Scott Kirby, United Airlines President
Timestamps & Transcripts
- 2:34:43 Rep Dina Titus: We’ve heard all this kind of ranting about how bad the airlines are and all these unfortunate experiences, and yet pretty soon this committee is set to consider a proposal to privatize air traffic control and hand over billions of dollars’ worth of investment and assets to a private corporation that’s going to be controlled by y’all, by the airlines, and then you’ll be able to run it as you see fit. Now, I’m opposed to that for a number of reasons, primarily because of how it’s going to leave customers kind of in the lurch, but my question is, what do you have to show that means you’re going to be able to take over this corporation and do well by your customers from that angle any better than you do from your angle that you are now? For example, there’re questions like, how much is the traveler going to have to pay to this corporation; what kind of things have you done at your airline in terms of routing that might be better that you’ll do through this corporation; terms of investment and technology, management decisions; what have you done about your own scheduling? All of those questions that have seemed to be criticized today, how are they going to translate into your being able to control air traffic control system through a private board? So, maybe y’all could just tell me some of the things you’re doing that would make an argument for why you should control that aspect of airlines as well. Scott Kirby: Well, thank you for the question, Congressman. And we believe that one of the ways we can actually help our customers is through ATC privatization. The worst thing we do to our customers is the long delays and cancellations. And those lead to customer service problems, they lead to the customer that gets to McCarran and is upset, and we want to fix that. And the FAA is a fantastic partner, and they want to fix that as well, but they’re handicapped today by the model, by the model where they do annual budgets, where investing for the future and the kinds of investments we need to make for the future are hard for the FAA to do in the normal course of business in the government. And the kinds of things that we could do to make the process better is, for example, you have more sophisticated GPS technology in your car than we use on aircraft today. We have these systems, and we could fly straight-line routes, but we still fly zigzag to highways in the sky to get from Washington to Las Vegas. We could do things like continuous-descent approaches. So today we’re at 35,000 feet, we step down in each one. It’s like driving your car and slamming on the accelerator and then hitting the brake, slamming on the accelerator—and we burn gas, and we take more time. All of that could allow us to fly shorter paths and get our customers there quicker. And we believe it’s one of the best things we could do for customer service is to reform the ATC program, and one of the best ways to do that is FAA privatization, not because the FAA is doing a bad job—they do a wonderful job—but the process is designed to be difficult and particularly for making long-term investments.
- 3:58:43 Rep Peter DeFazio: The question would be, well, now if we give control of the air traffic system to the airlines—effective control—four seats on a 13-person board, what do you think that means for customers and efficiency? William McGee: Well, it’s going to be particularly hard felt in the high-density airports and the busiest airports in the country. Now, I mean, what you just said is obviously a critical-enough issue: 17 flights scheduled at the same time. But underlining that is another problem that hasn’t really been discussed and that is the outsourcing—and it is outsourcing; the airlines call it partnering—but outsourcing of mainline flights to regional carriers. Up until recently, I don’t know if it’s still on there, but the Regional Airline Association on its homepage posted about the fact that not only more than 50% of all domestic departures operated by regionals on behalf of major carriers, but in addition they boasted of the fact that most of the departures every morning between New York and Washington, two of the busiest airports, not just in the country but on the planet—LaGuardia and Washington National—are operated by regionals. So, we have to ask ourselves, is that the best use of those slots to use smaller aircraft on some of the highest— DeFazio: So you’re saying that just because you’ve got a small aircraft and basically, maybe, you can follow it a tiny bit more closely, a little bit more closely, but because of wake turbulence, you’re taking up, basically, a slot with 60 people on board versus a slot with 180 people on board. McGee: Absolutely. I mean, I’m rusty on some of these issues; it’s been a long time since I worked as an airline dispatcher. But the bottom line is that, as they used to say, all metal requires x amount of space between it. So whether it’s a large aircraft or a small aircraft, there are differences with wake turbulence and things like that. But the bottom line is, again, are we using—these are public resources, let’s remember. These are not airline resources. The slots, they belong to the public. They’re treated as if they were private domain—but are we using them to the best ability in many ways, not just in terms of safety and efficiency but also in terms of the carbon footprint?
- 4:01:50 William McGee: And I think we also want to ask, well, why would they do that? Now, the response often comes from the airlines that customers prefer high frequency to consolidating flights. But there’s also another factor that doesn’t get discussed as much and that is the competition factor. In other words, if you have scarce slots at LaGuardia and you’re trying to prevent the competition from low-cost carriers, then use more frequencies out of those airports. Again, these are the most high ensity airports that we’re talking about.
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