Fight For ATC Just Warming Up

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There are probably few people who know more about aviation safety than former AOPA Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg so it would seem to be a no-brainer that he cap his influential and important career by becoming the newest member of the NTSB. But it’s a political appointment and the politics of aviation safety are as skewed as they are for anything else so if Lansberg’s appointment isn’t confirmed it won’t be because he’s not qualified to work for the NTSB. It will be because he's unable to work with politicians. 

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Landsberg was grilled over his criticism of the so-called 1,500-hour rule, which requires new airline pilots to have warmed a front window seat for that length of time before getting a job. It doesn’t matter if it’s the well-worn foam rubber of a Cessna trainer or the Nomex covering of a fighter jet, once that clock ticks over, anyone who attains it is qualified, in the simple world of the politicians who crafted it.

"Pilots should be hired and trained by solid criteria, not arbitrary numbers,” Landsberg wrote in a 2010 blog post. This heresy of common sense was too much for six senators who signed a letter before his hearing pointing out his transgression of logic. After all, there hasn’t been a major airliner crash since the law was passed so that proves it works, doesn’t it? For Landsberg’s sake and the future of aviation safety, we can only hope they don’t ask him that because he’ll tell them.

While we wish Landsberg well and we’ll be following his progression, his ordeal is a tawdry peep show that will become a trailer for the grand drama that will play out next year.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta’s term ends on Jan. 1 and he will leave a leadership vacuum at a time when the agency faces what many regard as a fundamental threat to its effectiveness as the regulator of the world’s most complex aviation system.

Huerta earned a reputation as a decent guy who did his best to do the right thing without creating a lot of fuss. That led many to question his effectiveness but I think we’ll have fond memories of his quiet, some might say plodding, administration (which, by the way, built the infrastructure for NextGen ATC despite numerous politically motivated funding interruptions and delays and kept the system a leader in safety, if not innovation).

It goes without saying that President Donald Trump, an unrepentant cheerleader for removing air traffic control from the FAA’s purview by way of a not-for-profit arm’s length corporation, will appoint a candidate who mirrors those views.

The mind boggles at the possibilities but rest assured there will be a single-minded set of priorities on the top floor at 800 Independence and if you think ATC has been politicized to date, I think the highly charged comments coming out of a corner office in faraway Oshkosh last week offer a glimpse.

EAA Chairman Jack Pelton sounded like he was on the hustings himself when he spun a series of hypotheses on the financial impact of severing ATC from the FAA into a rhetorical rant on things Americans hold dear.

“We’ve known it’s a bad idea for the federal budget, that it could slow modernization, and could very well be unconstitutional,” the normally straight-talking Pelton said in a statement on the financial implications of creating a new ATC corporation. “Now we learn that its budget impact could harm retirement pensions for veterans, funds for victims of major floods, and those who require Medicare coverage.”

At the moment, most Senators agree that hiving off ATC is a bad idea but, as we’ve seen with their simplistic handling of Landsberg’s nomination, they might be out of their league with a dogma-driven, fact-shy process that will try to bulldoze a compliant, or worse, activist, administrator into the FAA’s top job.

Huerta himself suggested he knew where his money was going. At last month’s NBAA convention he strayed from his usual bland state-of-the-FAA report to issue a clear warning to delegates not to “take a hard line” against the separation of ATC and presumably risk isolating themselves from the new way of doing things.

He, like the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, appears to have accepted the bitter pill as the only tonic that can solve the chronic funding security issues facing the agency. If that’s the best reason for this kind of initiative then something is clearly wrong with the process. While government is always about compromise and give and take, it should also always be about trying to make things better for the people it serves, not just make serving them more expedient.

 


 

By the way, I for one have taken the pledge to never again refer to the process of creating a separate ATC entity as “privatization” because it is anything but that. It is the creation of a private-sector monopoly which, in my opinion, is potentially infinitely worse than the government autocracy that now exists because there is no accountability or public recourse.

At NBAA, GA leaders repeatedly said “this is not privatization” while standing under banners with slogans calling it just that. To its credit, AOPA recognized the mixed message and there was internal discussion of using the term “monopolization” instead but there’s no evidence it gained any traction. We should get this straight because while the political process will do its best to muddy its meaning, those on the front lines should have a clear mandate and understanding of its meaning in the fight.

Comments (16)

Unconstitutional?
With apologies to Chicken Little, the Constitution empowers the Federal government to establish Post Offices and Post Roads. I must have missed the part about air traffic control.
As to the regulation of Interstate Commerce, the Congress has virtually unlimited latitude in that regard.
They even made the old Post Office Department into the "semi-autonomous" (an oxymoron) U.S. Postal Service. Apparently, some in Congress are intent on doing the same to the ATC function now vested with the FAA.
It never made any sense to have ATC under the same roof as the aeronautical rule-making and enforcement agency. Separating them makes sense, regardless of the form that either of them may take or retain.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 5, 2017 3:54 PM    Report this comment

Regardless of the form?

Seriously?

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 6, 2017 3:24 AM    Report this comment

I suggest sticking with the word "privatization." That's what it is. Yes, it's ugly. Yes, it results in a loss of accountability. Yes, it probably ends up making everything more expensive. Yes, it probably adds bureaucracy. Yes, we probably end up with fee-for-service and everything that entails (lower safety, a new fee-collecting infrastructure, disputes over fees paid, new leech industries to "help" pilots "manage" fees, and so on).

But that's what privatization means in practice. If you're lucky, the only thing that happens is that some monopoly takes it over and rakes in private profits while cutting public service.

Posted by: James Carlson | November 6, 2017 6:17 AM    Report this comment

This is an imperfect world and most people want perfection. NOT going to happen!

Posted by: Don Lineback | November 6, 2017 6:42 AM    Report this comment

You add accountability by creating the new entity with a 9 person board of directors with 3 year staggered terms (3 people elected each year). One person each year is elected by votes from everyone with a valid pilots license. One person each year is elected by votes from everyone who owns a registered aircraft, one vote per aircraft. One person each year is elected by votes from part 121 and part 135 certificate holders.

Posted by: Dean Hiller | November 6, 2017 7:34 AM    Report this comment

"I suggest sticking with the word "privatization." That's what it is."

By the strict definition, yes. But we now live in a world where framing is everything, and "privatization" makes it sound like the happy-cheery world of the "free market", which this is not. There's no competition and thus no external force to push service prices down other than the "not-for-profit" part (but "not-for-profit" doesn't mean the directors and everyone involved can't make a pretty earning). The whole push for "privatization" is for the pie-in-the-sky theory that it will lower costs and increase service, but we all know that won't happen because it will effectively be a non-governmental (i.e. no accountability) monopoly.


"You add accountability by creating the new entity with a 9 person board of directors with 3 year staggered terms ..."

Why not just keep it under government control? That provides direct accountability already. And the idea that the pilot community will vote for the directors will almost certainly be just like all other non-presidential votes: if people vote at all, most take the easy way out by passing their vote to a proxy or vote "party line" (whatever the equivalent will be for this).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 6, 2017 8:15 AM    Report this comment

I don't see the Post Office doing so well and they have competition in the parcel and package arena. Next should we turn over control of federal highways (Interstate Highway System). After all the long distance trucking industry will be the first to embrace self driving vehicles. The FAA may not be doing a great job but at least Congress gets into the act and slowly pushes them to get somethings right.

I can not see the unfriendly folks who send my luggage to places unknown, stuff us into seats that ancient torturer's would envy (I am average sized and they still hurt), book 25 flights to depart form the same airport within 5 minutes of each other, cancel flights due to crew shortages, etc., etc. looking out for GA's interests.

Yesterday, was a great example of how the system works. Went up to get some actual with a student. ATC (Cl C) and tower (Cl D)were more than helpful in allowing us the ability to complete 3 approaches in under 1.5 hours and return to our little airport. Would an airline controlled ATC allow that. What would it have cost us? Would we have been charged for each ATC contact, each approach, each touch and go or each frequency change? Would we have had to file our flight plan 24 hours, 3 days or how long before the flight? Would some ATC manager decide that we were delaying the airline traffic and ground us?

Please keep ATC away from the airlines or private profit driven entities.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | November 6, 2017 10:12 AM    Report this comment

They even made the old Post Office Department into the "semi-autonomous" (an oxymoron) U.S. "Postal Service. Apparently, some in Congress are intent on doing the same to the ATC function now vested with the FAA. It never made any sense to have ATC under the same roof as the aeronautical rule-making and enforcement agency. Separating them makes sense, regardless of the form that either of them may take or retain."

Sorry but that sounds like trying to have your cake and eat it too. Search Google for "usps year in review 2016" and click the link for the FY 16 annual report. Page 4 of the pdf file (page 2 in the lower left corner of the page) will show the financials of the USPS for the last 3 years. The federal government contributes money to the USPS every year; the USPS has run a deficit (increasing annually) since deregulation in 1971; and volume of mail has decreased in 2 of the last 3 years. The thing that makes the most sense is for Congress to quit playing politics with aviation safety and create a stable funding source for the FAA.

Posted by: Jim Thrash | November 6, 2017 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Eric:
You seem to be mis-interpreting my comment. Let me try to make it clearer:
Separating ATC from the rest of the FAA makes sense. Period.
How you implement that can range from fantastic to catastrophic.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 6, 2017 12:56 PM    Report this comment

Jim:
The USPS and AmTrak are two fine examples of what happens when the Congress creates a SEMI-autonomous creature, and then jerks its chain endlessly. If Congress were to do the same thing with ATC, we could expect similar results.

Leo:
The text of the proposed legislation does NOT support your (and others') assertion that the result will be an airline-controlled ATC. That may be your nightmare, but the Bill doesn't provide for that outcome.

I'm an agnostic on this subject. But the unfounded and easily-debunked hysteria that the Alphabets (and more than a few individuals) are spewing on this topic undermines their credibility, and thus the persuasiveness of their arguments.

Two problems need to be addressed:
The Congress continues to fail to do its job.
The NextGen system is a stinking pile of ****.

Saying "What we're doing now is just fine" does nothing to address either of those two problems. Of course, some will assert that neither of those problems is real.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 6, 2017 1:06 PM    Report this comment

"The text of the proposed legislation does NOT support your (and others') assertion that the result will be an airline-controlled ATC."

It might not be airline-controlled, but it's certainly heavily weighted to favor the airlines (they'll have 3 of the seats). That's bad enough.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 6, 2017 2:05 PM    Report this comment

Gary:
How is 1/3 of the seats "heavily weighted?" The airlines are a major stakeholder - some might argue that they're the largest stakeholder. What level of participation would satisfy you?
Dean had some interesting ideas above. But I could argue that passengers should have a voice, too - not just the carriers that fly them around. And what about the airport operators? Surely they'll have something of value to add to the conversation.
Stakeholder identification MUST precede stakeholder weighting. When you go to the well.....

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 6, 2017 2:34 PM    Report this comment

"How is 1/3 of the seats "heavily weighted?" "

You don't think 1/3 of all the seats by essentially a single entity compared to 1 or 2 seats by others isn't heavily weighted? If I line up 3 10lb weights on one side of a see-saw, 2 10lb weights on the other, and 5 or so (however many it is) 10lb weights across the rest of the see-saw, what do you think the chances are that the GA-friendly side will outweigh or balance the airline-friendly side?


"What level of participation would satisfy you?"

How about an equal level of participation? I have equal access* to the current ATC system and I want to make sure it stays that way, because I pay my taxes too. Why not 1 part-121 rep, 1 part-135 rep, 1 part-91 rep, and 1 ATC rep. Add in 1 or 2 elected positions if you must. ALPA doesn't need a say, because ATC Corp isn't making pilot rules, it's managing airspace.


* Actually, the airlines can get into DCA but I can't, so it's not quite 100% equal access. But that's more TSA/Homeland Security's doing than the FAA's, so it's not entirely fair to compare that to a "private" ATC corporation.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 6, 2017 2:54 PM    Report this comment

Maybe the new FAA boss can be Bill Shuster! He loses his Transpo Committee chair next term anyway, right?

Posted by: Art Friedman | November 6, 2017 3:33 PM    Report this comment

I think that if the FAA were to hire qualified people in all positions the problem would be solved. My horrible experience with the FAA Retards is not due to the regulations, it's how the unqualified employees enforce them. Actually they don't enforce the regulations because they don't know the regulations. But they are full of their own "Fake" regulations and they seem to have the power to make them stick. If you don't march to their drummer, you will end up on their Caca Listo. I say the problem is the people not the regulations. When I use the term "regulations" I do not include the thousands of Orders. I can assure you that there are several FAA employees in the Nevada FSDO that are totally void of any aviation background. And when you try to move on of them off their wrong course you are in for a really bad "flight". Kent

Posted by: Kent Tarver | November 6, 2017 9:00 PM    Report this comment

Gary:
So 1/3 is too much, and 1/4 is just right... Then if the airlines' representation is reduced by one seat (bringing it to 2/9ths), you'll be satisfied with their representation - right?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 7, 2017 1:13 PM    Report this comment

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