Reforming Air Traffic Control Yields Opportunity for South Jersey

Jun 22, 2017

Flying today is not much different than a decade ago yet as air travel demands have exponentially increased, service and reliability flounder. While the world’s safest, our current aviation system is not the most efficient, costing consumers and our economy billions in delayed departures, indirect routing and idling on tarmacs. Over 60 countries have non-government entities successfully managing their airspace. Despite its size and complexity, the U.S. is surely capable of taking a transformational approach to build a 21st century aviation system.

Legislation I cosponsored this week reforms Air Traffic Control (ATC) by establishing an independent non-profit to manage and update air traffic services. It would establish a stable, self-sustaining funding source using a cost-based user fee structure to redirect current taxes into the aviation system and reinvest surplus revenues. It would remove ongoing air traffic modernization efforts – NextGen – from the dysfunctional federal procurement system, which has slowed research, delayed acquisitions and increased costs.

It is clear failures to properly manage and deploy NextGen are not due to the men and women at South Jersey’s FAA Technical Center. Far from it. Failure rests squarely with FAA management in Washington and, yes, Congress.

FAA Headquarters is a bureaucratic nightmare of red-tape and reliable excuses. The FAA has currently spent more than $7 billion on NextGen for a $2 billion return in benefits. The USDOT Inspector General warns initial costs of $40 billion could double or triple, delaying completion for another decade. Furthermore projects and personnel, including those in South Jersey, are being reassigned to Washington. For years the slow drain has decreased resources and manpower from our Tech Center.

Congress hasn’t helped, passing 42 resolutions to keep the government running rather than full appropriations and 23 short-term FAA authorization extensions over 5 years. Tech Center employees and contractors angrily recall partial shutdowns in 2011 and 2013, disrupting their research.

Critics argue reforming FAA, not removing ATC, is the correct course. Tried and failed. Congress, too, is not going to change anytime soon. Consequently, airlines remain hesitant to invest. Separating ATC creates a stable funding source to modernize the system quicker.

Let me be absolutely clear: the men and women at our Tech Center do outstanding work. Protecting current jobs and promoting future projects has been and will continue to be my first priority. As Aviation Subcommittee Chairman, I have always put the critical research and dedicated employees front and center.

If signed into law, FAA will remain in charge of safety. After three years, managing ATC services will be transferred to the new non-profit. Safety and R&D functions will remain with FAA. Both will have a presence at our Tech Center.

Justifiable concerns have been raised about local implications. In response I reinforced our Tech Center’s ability to dictate its future. Previously, I ensured the complex would remain property of the federal government. The Tech Center Director will now sit on the transition team to determine which assets, laboratories and personnel are transferred to the non-profit. Additional Tech Center-specific language is being drafted.

I also recognize anxiety exists for some employees, flamed by misinformation and misconceptions. Individuals currently working in the ATC system will transfer to the non-profit with accrued annual and sick leave. They can opt to retain their existing FAA salary, health and retirement benefits or switch to the non-profit’s system. Current non-ATC federal employees will see no change.

Bottom line: all employees’ rights are protected; all union agreements transfer in their entirety; and, all current contracts will be honored.

I have met repeatedly with union leadership representing Tech Center employees to discuss their concerns. At each meeting I strongly urged them to present tangible ideas for improving the legislation. To date, silence. Next week the full Transportation Committee will debate the bill. The window to include their ideas – and the opportunity to help me advocate on behalf of their membership - is quickly closing.

This is an opportunity for the Tech Center, its employees, and South Jersey to reshape the future of aviation and our region’s economy. Establishment of the ATC non-profit could yield corporate R&D projects in our region and create opportunities for regional and national academia. Growing areas of interest - cybersecurity and drones - could receive additional research dollars. And with the Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park already underway, there will be an even greater incentive for aviation industry leaders to seriously look at South Jersey for operations.

The Tech Center is not only the premier aviation facility in the US, but the world. Research done here continues to raise the level of safety in air travel, repeatedly redefining the gold standard. The expertise of its employees ensures U.S. leadership in aviation. We now face a generational opportunity to transform South Jersey into the global leader for the 21st century. Let’s not ground it.