Discerning Fact from Fiction in the ATC Reform Debate

There are so many misconceptions about air traffic control reform being spread that it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. A recent Dear Colleague letter purports to be looking out for taxpayers but the important thing to know is that the Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR Act) protects the public interest. Allegations that the legislation “gives away billions of dollars of taxpayer-owned property and equipment and sticks taxpayers and the traveling public with the bill” are simply unfounded.

Throughout the decades the American public has been flying, they have paid federal taxes on airline tickets. In 2015, aviation taxes—from passengers, shippers, airlines, and private pilots—brought in over $14 billion to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF). Since the creation of the AATF in 1970, aviation users have paid over $250 billion in taxes into the AATF—which is the funding source for the vast majority of equipment, facilities and real property that house the air traffic control (ATC) system.  In other words, aviation users—not general taxpayers—have already paid for almost all of the assets in question. Since aviation users would also be funding 100% of the costs of the new, non-profit ATC entity proposed in the AIRR Act, requiring this entity to pay for these assets again would be inappropriate and would truly stick the traveling public with the bill (twice).

It is also worth noting that the current book value of the FAA’s assets is significantly less than the “more than $50 billion” cited in the Dear Colleague letter, and in some cases, those assets also come with significant environmental liabilities. The AIRR Act transfers the ATC infrastructure on an “as is, where is” basis to the new, federally chartered entity.

The need to modernize our nation’s ATC facilities and technology is widely recognized. The DOT Office of Inspector General recently noted that the FAA has not produced comprehensive business cases to support facility consolidation, and that, despite previous reform efforts, the agency still experiences significant challenges in introducing new technologies. One of the goals of the AIRR Act is to expedite the modernization effort by freeing ATC from the restrictions of the federal budget process. In keeping with this goal and the new entity’s non-profit status, the Act requires that any proceeds from property sales be used for the acquisition or improvement of air navigation facilities or other capital assets to benefit the flying public.

Contrary to the implication in the Dear Colleague letter that the ATC Corporation could simply close facilities without input from labor or other stakeholders, the AIRR Act requires the non-profit entity to develop a process for the realignment and consolidation of services at least 180 days prior to assuming responsibility for operation of the ATC system. This process is to be developed in consultation with labor unions representing operations and maintenance employees and no facility consolidation or realignment can occur until the process is established. And of course, under the AIRR Act, the air traffic controllers’ union (among a broad cross-section of stakeholders) would also be responsible for appointing one of the members of the new company’s Board of Directors.

The FAA will continue to manage ATC functions until the new non-profit company is up to speed and ready to take over, similar to how relay runners pace together before handing off the baton for a seamless transition. As the new user-funded entity moves forward with transforming the ATC system, all aviation users will see better service because of the modernized air navigation operations.