Options for FAA Air Traffic Control Reform
2167 Rayburn House Office Building
Summary of Subject Matter
Official Hearing Transcript
- Mr. Matt Hampton, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation | Written Testimony
Hearing on “Options for FAA Air Traffic Control Reform”
March 24, 2015
(Remarks as Prepared)
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Over the past two years, we’ve held numerous meetings, listening sessions, roundtables, and hearings on the FAA’s efforts to modernize our safe, yet increasingly obsolete air traffic control (ATC) system. We’ve also seen reams of GAO and Inspector General reports on the FAA’s most recent ATC modernization initiative, NextGen.
The bottom line is, after three decades of various modernization attempts and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, we’re nowhere near where we need to be. While the FAA has spent approximately $6 billion to date on NextGen, passengers, shippers, and aircraft operators have seen few benefits. In fact, ATC delays are up at 13 of our 20 largest airports, and domestic flights take longer now than they did in 1977. Delays ripple throughout the system and cost tens of billions of dollars every year.
As our system approaches one billion passengers per year, under these circumstances, two things will happen. One: every day at the airport is going to seem like the day before Thanksgiving. And two: we will lose our lead in aviation as other nations catch up and surpass us. Neither outcome is acceptable.
Let me emphasize that this is not an indictment of the FAA’s leadership team, or our air traffic controllers, who are the best in the world. It’s an indictment of a governance and financing structure that is broken beyond repair.
The underlying problem is that air traffic control is a high-tech service. The customers are companies and individuals who pay good money to a service provider that is not a business, but a vast government bureaucracy. As a government agency, the FAA is simply not set up to determine risks, pursue the most cost-efficient investments, manage people to produce results, reward excellence, or punish incompetence like a normal business. In the same amount of time FAA has been working on NextGen, Verizon has upgraded its wireless network four times.
During this discussion, some have raised questions like “what problem are we trying to solve?” and “why we should try to do this now?” Those are fair questions.
To answer “what are we trying to solve?” I would say that we are not just trying to solve a procurement problem or a human resources challenge. Past Congresses have tried to address narrow problems but we have little to show for it. The FAA hasn’t really changed or gotten better. What I want is for the United States to have the safest, most cost-effective, most technologically advanced ATC system in the world, bar none. We’re not there, and we’ll never get there on our current path. We have to step up to the broader challenges of getting this right and keeping America the leader.
And to answer “why now?” Air traffic levels have declined by 15 percent since 2007, but the FAA and its budget have gotten larger. This is the right time to act. We have the breathing room and imperative to get ourselves on course.
The only answer is transformational reform that will ensure that our ATC service provider operates like a business, with no degradation in safety levels.
It’s been done before. In the past 20 years, 50 countries have successfully separated their ATC service from the aviation safety regulator. They’ve taken different approaches, but with similar results: ATC systems have been modernized, safety levels have been either maintained or improved, service quality has been improved in most cases, and costs have been generally reduced.
I believe that the United States, with all of our talent, energy, and resources, can do just as well or better than other nations. Given the size and complexity of our national airspace system, we need to look at lessons learned and the best attributes from other countries and apply them here.
The idea of reforming our system is not new. Bipartisan federal aviation commissions during the Reagan and Clinton administrations tried to tackle these issues. And no matter what course we take on air traffic control reform, we need to ensure that safety will not be compromised. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today who can share their perspectives and offer us guidance on how we can ensure our ATC system is the world leader in the decades ahead.
Subcommittee on Aviation
Over the last year, the Subcommittee has held a series of roundtables and hearings on the state of our nation’s air traffic control system and identifying the challenges the FAA has faced in modernization and NextGen implementation. While we currently enjoy the safest ATC system in the world, we should be striving to also be the most efficient that we can be. Historically, the United States has been the leader in aviation. However, the record is mixed on where we stand today.
For decades, policymakers and stakeholders have almost unanimously recognized the need to modernize our radar-based, World War II-era ATC system. The FAA has been attempting to modernize the system since 1981. The DOT Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and numerous bipartisan federal airline commissions found that FAA’s progress with delivering planned NextGen capabilities has encountered a number of delays, cost increases, and failure to provide promised benefits to the traveling public and industry stakeholders. In testimony before this subcommittee last year, DOT Inspector General Scovel warned that NextGen implementation costs for government and industry – initially estimated at $20 billion for each – could double or triple – and that NextGen implementation may take an additional decade.
While stakeholders unanimously support NextGen, they have been unable to agree on how to address these well-documented implementation obstacles. As Chairman Shuster has stated, the Committee has a historic opportunity to drive the institutional change needed to ensure that we have the very best ATC system in the world. Three years of federal budget disputes have included the FAA’s decision in April 2013 to furlough 10 percent of its air traffic controller workforce and nearly close 149 contract towers to meet sequester-driven budgetary cuts; the partial shutdown of the FAA in August 2011; and schedule delays and cost overruns that continue to plague FAA’s modernization and NextGen implementation efforts.
These are distressing realities, but may be just the impetus needed to drive change – specifically whether it is time to transform and/or transfer the air traffic control function of the FAA, currently managed by the Air Traffic Organization. The United States is the only developed country whose ATC system can become a political football, frequently held hostage to federal budget disputes like the sequester, which threatens not only the ongoing operations of the ATC system, but also the successful implementation of NextGen. I believe, and I know Chairman Shuster believes, that unless we reform our ATC system’s governance and funding structures, we risk failure in implementing NextGen and its full benefits.
While there may not be consensus among stakeholders yet on the type of model that the U.S. should pursue, there is a growing consensus that comprehensive financing and governance reforms are needed. Furthermore, there is an acknowledgement that we are not fully using the FAA assets and expertise readily available, including the FAA Technical Center in my district, to their fullest to solve these vexing issues. We can and must do better.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses their thoughts on different options for reform of our nation’s air traffic control system. Let me emphasize that ensuring we continue to have the safest aviation system in the world will drive the ATC reform debate in the months ahead.
As the Subcommittee seeks to address these long-standing obstacles to ATC modernization and NextGen implementation in the next FAA reauthorization bill, there are questions that we need to address at today’s hearing. Does the United States have the best governance and funding structure in place to deliver the most efficient, modern ATC system while ensuring safety? Have the ATC models used by other countries enhanced safety and efficiency, and if so, can the best attributes of these models be adopted by the United States without adversely impacting safety?
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