Don't undermine air traffic control

A core principle of aviation safety, as in medicine, must be “first, do no harm.” Yet last week, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee introduced an FAA “reform” bill that would introduce peril to the very system it seeks to improve.

The Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act would remove all air traffic control services from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and hand these responsibilities to a government-sponsored corporation headed by representatives of the very airlines and aviation industry that the agency is charged with overseeing.

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Upending the structure and mission of the FAA, which operates the largest and most complex air traffic control system in the world, would disrupt the collaboration between air traffic and aviation safety, diminish air service to smaller and rural airports and undermine Congress’s ability to oversee and improve air traffic control services.

Every day, a dedicated and highly skilled controller and technician workforce safely manages thousands of flights and maintains the round-the-clock operation of the FAA’s vast air traffic and navigational network. These dedicated employees must remain sharply focused on safety in the public interest. Our safety workforce should not be beholden to a board controlled by aviation industry stakeholders who have an undeniable interest in improving their own bottom line.

Currently, the air traffic control system is primarily financed through ticket taxes that are collected when passengers take a commercial flight. As elected representatives of those passengers, it is incumbent on the Congress to ensure that those ticket taxes pay for investments that are transparent, that modernize the air traffic control system and that ensure equitable access to small and large communities across the country. It is our duty to ensure that the air traffic control receives careful management and financial oversight and that the consumer is not unduly burdened with increasing fees.

An independent corporation — composed of industry representatives and unaccountable to the public — could raise user fees, increasing the cost of air travel and shipping. It could defer maintenance and upkeep of aging facilities, jeopardizing the FAA’s excellent safety record. It could slow the transition from radar to satellite-based navigation, potentially lagging behind the rest of the world. It could selectively cut service to smaller markets and rural airports that serve general aviation. It could totally ignore community grievances regarding flight patterns and aircraft noise.

Any of these options could pose safety risks, reduce the efficacy of our air traffic control system, undermine accountability and oversight, and raise costs for consumers. And Congress and the flying public would have no recourse.

Finally, spinning off air traffic control responsibilities to a nongovernment corporation could potentially pose a risk to national security. In the event of a national emergency, our defense and law enforcement agencies may need unfettered access to airspace, and serious concerns about chain of command are warranted if a private entity controlled such a strategically important asset.

All of these risks demonstrate why no consensus exists in support of the proposal among those most familiar with our air traffic control system. Serious concerns have been raised by pilots, who depend on reliable air traffic control, the technicians who work on it, commercial air carriers and the general aviation community.

In the midst of the safest period in the history of United States air travel, now is not the time to undertake a risky scheme to privatize air traffic control, which could diminish safety, increase costs, reduce service and eliminate accountability.

The quality and scope of the United States air traffic control program are unmatched by any other country. We should continue to make improvements to the technology and operations of the system, but it would be a major mistake to undermine the funding model and oversight that makes our air traffic control system the best in the world.

Lowey represents New York’s 17th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1989. She is ranking member on the Appropriations Committee. Price has represented North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District since 1997 and from 1987 to 1995. He sits on the Appropriations Committee.