OSHKOSH – The chief of the Federal Aviation Administration pushed back against a plan to privatize the U.S. air-traffic control system Thursday, before a crowd of sympathetic aviation buffs in Oshkosh.
The plan, backed by the Trump Administration, would move some 35,000 FAA workers from that agency to a private nonprofit corporation run by airlines and other aviation stakeholders. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who steps down in January, spoke Thursday at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture convention.
Supporters of privatization, which includes airlines and the air traffic controllers union, argue the measure would stabilize funding and herald better training, equipment and a more efficient system.
But Huerta bristled at the suggestion that FAA is wasteful.
“I don’t think (privatization) should be reviewed as an indictment of the agency’s ability to do its job,” he said.
The privatization could be on shaky ground, anyway.
Just two days before, a Senate panel rejected the plan in approving the FAA’s budget, following a similar move in the House.
In approving a $16.7 billion budget for the FAA, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development tossed out a plan to send FAA workers to a private non-profit, following rejection from a similar House finance committee July 14.
But the decision isn’t final because Congress must debate the measure before finalizing the spending plan. Meanwhile, an FAA privatization bill, which expires Sept. 30, is ready for debate in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The privatization push comes as air travel in the U.S. is safer than ever. It has been eight years since a passenger airline crash has caused a fatality in America, the largest and most complex system in the world.
Huerta said his agency has continued to invest amid insecure federal funding, sequestration and three shutdowns since 2011. That process has squeezed the agency’s ability to commit to long-term contracts and budget for big expenses.
“Nonetheless, we have a new automation system deployed at every air traffic control center,” he said. “We have new automation systems at all of our terminal facilities. We have deployed performance-based navigation at every metropolitan airport in the country. I actually think we’re doing a damn good job.”
Huerta’s comments drew applause from a crowd gathered for the briefing.
Last week, EAA used its platform as the largest airshow in the world to make a case against privatization. At an exhibit there, visitors signed a petition against privatization, while EAA Chairman and CEO Jack Pelton railed against the plan. EAA is among 170 general aviation groups who argue privatization gives too much power to airlines.
EAA staffs an elite crew of air traffic controllers to manage the barrage of planes during the event when Wittman Regional Airport becomes the busiest airport in the world. Under a privatized system, putting on EAA might become too onerous, Pelton said.
“If you go to a full privatized system, I don’t know any entity that would come in here and operate this tower… and provide their own insurance,” Pelton said. “You stack that up, and it becomes essentially impossible.”