If the effort to privatize more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers is successful this year, it will be the result of issues like the paper strips.
Each time an air traffic controller transfers responsibility for a plane to a colleague, the handoff is quite literal. He hands a narrow strip of paper with the plane’s information on it to the fellow controller.
“We are at least eight years away from replacing this paper-strip system,” former transportation secretary James H. Burnley said Tuesday.
Members of Congress and the White House want to move 14,000 air traffic controllers and more than 16,000 who are responsible for a $35.8 billion FAA modernization program into the hands of a federally chartered nonprofit corporation.
Burnley co-chairs an aviation study group at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank that has issued a report that advocates for the privatization. The Eno study points to the FAA’s fumbling of the paper-strip issue to illustrate the agency’s ineptitude in handling the massive modernization project known as NextGen.
The FAA built new state-of-the-art control towers in San Francisco and Las Vegas on the assumption that a new electronic handoff system to replace the paper strips would be ready by the time they opened, the Eno report said. But with that system eight years away from fruition, they had to scramble at the last minute so that controllers could use the antiquated paper system.
“They are in the Stone Age,” said Byron L. Dorgan, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota and co-chair of the Eno study group. “We are not capable of moving with any speed at all toward this next-generation satellite guidance unless we have a different kind of governance.”
Severing the workers from the federal payroll was endorsed last week by the Trump administration, and a renewed effort is expected in the House after an attempt last year won committee support but never received a vote on the floor.
The central issue has not been the FAA’s stewardship of aviation safety, but rather a decade of harsh criticism from within the government and from several major airlines over its handling of the NextGen project.
Although elements of the program have come online, reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general have portrayed the modernization effort as bogged down in bureaucracy.
The FAA also has been hamstrung by government shutdowns, sequestration and the failure to reauthorize its funding.
“This is about the future, and NextGen, and the federal government’s inability to get that deployed despite reams and reams and reams of reports from the GAO and the office of the inspector general — and various commissions, both Republicans and Democrats — who have talked about this over the years,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center.
Burnley and Dorgan produced the 63-page study that says creating an independent nonprofit corporation that could be funded through airline and airport fees, escaping the uncertainty of federal funding.
The cost of an airline ticket includes a half-dozen taxes that flow into an aviation trust fund. There’s also a federal tax on aviation fuel.
The two men said that the Canadian air traffic control system, which was privatized 20 years ago, had seen fees drop by one-third over that time span.
Much of what the Eno report outlines mirrors the proposal that House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) plans to reintroduce before the current FAA funding expires in September.
It would transfer the relevant FAA assets to the corporation at no cost, protect the pay scales and retirement plans of transferred workers, create an entity that could issue bonds to fund its investments and be run by an executive and board of directors.
The board Shuster envisions would include two federal appointees, four airline representatives, three representatives of the general aviation sector, and one representative each from the aerospace industry, the controllers union and the pilots union.
Although the bill was approved by Shuster’s committee last year, opposition from the Senate effectively blocked it. After President Trump’s endorsement last week, several of the GOP senators who opposed the legislation last year were reluctant to express renewed reservations.
Some House and Senate members also questioned the propriety of handing federal assets to a private corporation at no cost.
“The assets actually have been paid for by the traveling public already,” Puentes said, although he conceded that, “As part of the negotiation they would probably settle on some price that would be paid to move things over from federal hands.”