The Need to Reform FAA and Air Traffic Control to Build a 21st Century Aviation System for America
2167 Rayburn House Office Building
This is a hearing of the Full Committee.
Summary of Subject Matter
Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA)
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Hearing on “The Need to Reform FAA and Air Traffic Control to Build a 21st Century Aviation System for America”
May 17, 2017
(Remarks as Prepared)
The way America travels, moves goods, and conducts business today depends on an efficient transportation network. In order to remain competitive, we need a 21st century infrastructure with modern, 21st century technology.
This is especially true for our aviation system, but the fact is the FAA’s infrastructure is increasingly obsolete, and its technology is still cemented in the last century. As a result, shocking amounts of tax dollars and time have been wasted over the last 35 years.
That’s why my highest priority this year is a comprehensive FAA reform and reauthorization bill.
So far this year we have held reauthorization hearings looking at air transportation, manufacturing, airports, and new entrants and innovations. Today, we will focus on the need for air traffic control reform – divesting the high-tech service business from government and shifting it to an independent, not-for-profit entity.
It’s appropriate that we are holding this hearing during Infrastructure Week. No other single infrastructure reform has as much potential to improve air travel for the average American flier, or to ensure our hard-earned leadership in aviation.
Although our aviation system is safe, FAA’s structure and how air traffic is managed have been broken for decades. The decisions we make in the FAA reauthorization bill this year will either move us toward the 21st century aviation system America needs or doom us to repeating the failures of the past over and over again.
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, controller hiring and training suffered, and FAA bureaucrats tried to shut down contract towers.
Fiscal constraints continue to be tight, and so is the federal budget. That’s not going to change any time 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 5 years before it passed the previous long-term FAA authorization bill.
Under these conditions, the FAA bureaucracy has been trying to undertake a high-tech modernization of the air traffic control system for over 3 decades. It’s not working, and it’s never going to work. Sadly, in today’s digital age, our controllers still manage planes with paper strips.
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 FAA partnered with the private sector.
And let’s remember that the name “NextGen” was really just a re-branding 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 dollars for NextGen since 2004. Results are the problem. According to the FAA’s own calculations, the return on the taxpayers’ $7.4 billion investment 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 costs for NextGen – $40 billion – could double or triple, and be delayed another decade. Over the years, the FAA has described NextGen as a “Transformation of America’s air transportation network” that “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 vision for NextGen is not what [was] being implemented.” It “…is not…broadly transformational.” And it is “not a fundamental change in the way FAA handles air traffic.”
Only in the federal government would such a dismal record be considered a “success.”
While the FAA continues to fall behind, the rest of world is moving on with new technologies without the United States involved. Nothing less than America’s leadership is at stake – in an industry that we pioneered and have led since Kitty Hawk.
Some have proposed targeted reforms to fix the FAA’s problems, but that’s an approach we’ve tried many times already. Since 1995, Congress has passed various reforms to allow FAA to run more like a business:
All have failed to result in an FAA that runs more like a business. The FAA will always perform like a massive bureaucracy.
And, it is the only DOT agency that serves as both a transportation service provider and the safety regulator. Regulating itself is an inherent conflict of interest, and separating the two functions is simply good government. It’s time for reform that is truly transformational.
Real change can be difficult – we’ve learned that over the last year. But the broader lesson over the last several decades is that the true risk lies in doing nothing. Last year’s bill that passed out of Committee will serve as the framework for new legislation, but we are open to changes. As we continue to move forward, our air traffic control reform proposal will be based on the following principles:
And ultimately – Allow all users of the system, including airline passengers and the general public, to realize the significant benefits of a modern air traffic control system, including a decrease in delays, flight times, and congestion.
Previous efforts to reform the FAA and modernize the system teach us that the only way to realize these benefits is to get the government out of the way. As President Reagan said, “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”
Since the introduction of the AIRR Act over a year ago, there has been an ongoing process of education and discussion. We’ve had over 130 meetings with stakeholders – including both supporters and opponents of the AIRR Act. We’ve had numerous meetings with Members, Senate, White House, other Committees. These meetings have been extremely productive and given us new ideas to improve the new legislation.
I want to hear the same thing from today’s witnesses – what are your ideas that can build upon the principles I’ve outlined?
We’ve also gone to Canada to see their system firsthand, and we will go again with more members. Not so that we can imitate their system, but to learn from it and use lessons they’ve learned to help fix our own broken structure.
Over 60 other countries have followed this kind of reform. It worked in each case. Opponents of reform either ignore the evidence or must believe we are less capable than 60 other countries. Air traffic control is not an inherently governmental function. It’s a technology service.
For those who worry that the system is too complex – I would say this: The most complex thing in our airspace is not the air traffic control system. It’s the airplane.
The FAA already oversees highly-sophisticated, private sector aircraft manufacturing, maintenance, and flight operations at arms-length. Overseeing air traffic control is not going to be more complicated than anything FAA already does.
This transformational reform will fix our obsolete and dysfunctional air traffic control structure; move beyond the wasteful, inefficient status quo; and benefit all users of the system.
Ultimately, reform will give the average American flier a safe, efficient aviation system using 21st century technology to ensure more on-time departures, more direct routes, and less wasted time on the tarmac.