WASHINGTON – Unions representing workers at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are criticizing a House Republican proposal to spin off the FAA, making it independent of the federal Transportation Department.
An independent FAA, the GOP says, could raise its own revenue to keep the nation’s air transportation system going without having to run to lawmakers for money. Instead, it would charge passengers to pay for such items as air traffic control and airport construction.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says the first thing Congress must do is to ensure a “stable, predictable funding stream” for the FAA. Only after that, NATCA warns, should lawmakers tackle FAA “structural reforms,” such as spinning it off.
NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, whose union has the nation’s 13,902 air traffic controllers and 6,000 other members, says that past stop-and-start funding from Capitol Hill, plus cutbacks, plus sequestration, plus pay freezes, have all contributed to a looming shortage of trained veteran air traffic controllers and a system that needs an overhaul.
The funding problems, Rinaldi testified, also impacted the much-delayed, way-over-budget construction and installation of the so-called NextGen air traffic control system nationwide. NextGen is a GPS-satellite-based system that would replace 1950s radar as the way controllers monitor, slot and guide aircraft through the nation’s crowded skies.
And the funding problems lead to a shortage of controllers and increased overtime in one of the nation’s most high-stress jobs, Rinaldi warned. Some one-third of the controllers are eligible to retire in the next few years – 1,000 have left in the last year alone – and few replacements are in the pipeline because the stop-and-start money cut funds for training.
But Rinaldi didn’t entirely close the door on making the FAA independent, though his prepared testimony did not advocate that solution. Answering a senator’s question on May 19, he said: “The current system is not dynamic enough to address the needs. We believe it’s time for a structural change.”
A coalition of other unions, led by AFSCME, opposes the FAA spinoff plan.
“AFSCME opposes privatization or partial privatization of the air traffic control system and does not support separating those functions from the FAA,” its legislative department said. “AFSCME joined other FAA unions in a letter to Congress stating, ‘The FAA must remain one cohesive unit in order to allow all FAA employees to continue working together for the benefit of the world’s foremost aviation system.'”
AFSCME President Lee Saunders, Government Employees President J. David Cox, and Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan were among the letter’s signers. The bill is moving slowly through Congress, but lawmakers must renew FAA’s programs this year.
Meanwhile, the Air Line Pilots are warning lawmakers not to use the FAA legislation to weaken flight safety standards. A 2010 law mandated tougher standards for pilot training, licensing, qualifications, professional development, ratings for flying different types of planes and experience with difficult weather conditions.
In full-page ads entitled “This is your captain speaking,” ALPA said the 2010 law “and resulting regulations have significantly improved aviation safety. The 2015 legislation must not weaken any safety standards or inhibit future regulations that are in the best interest of aviation safety.”
Photo: FAA inspections of equipment including planes themselves would suffer under the House Republican proposal, critics of it assert. | Seth Perlman/AP