Under Trump plan to outsource air traffic control, NextGen could see a boost

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President Donald Trump’s plan to outsource the nation’s air traffic control to a private nonprofit could improve the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to move to a modernized, GPS-based national airspace system, officials said Monday. 

The system — the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen — aims to enhance safety and aircraft location precision with GPS, but it has run into funding issues in the past due to budget cuts and sequestrations. By sending operations of air traffic control to an outside partner, Trump and others believe it could make upgrading that technology easier.  

“Our incredible air traffic controllers keep us safe every day, even though they are forced to use this badly outdated system,” Trump said early Monday in his formal announcement of the initiative. “That is why we want to give them access to capital markets and investors so they can obtain the best, newest, and safest technology available. And by the way — the new technology, I have seen it — incredible.”

The plan, which would create a nonprofit corporation to handle air traffic control, would have to be passed by Congress. Supporters of Trump’s plan include Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who appeared at Monday’s event.

DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy, explained in a pre-announcement briefing Monday how by breaking air traffic control away from the FAA could aid in the move away from its current “outdated technology.”

“So you have, in essence, what is a technology business imbedded in a governmental agency,” Gribbin said on the call. “So we are going to separate out air traffic control from the FAA functions of safety, and that new entity will be responsible then for managing the air traffic control.”

The goal is to roll out the technology within the next three years, Gribbin said.

“If we have this new system, once it’s set up, it will dramatically advance the implementation of NextGen, which is a [bundle] of technologies that help air traffic controllers move traffic through the system,” Gribbin said.

He noted that this sort of system has been done in more than 50 countries and could lead to the elimination of flight delays, saved costs on fuel and enhanced safety due to the transition to discrete oversight.

“Once this technology is coming on board, it will be like iPhones,” he said. “It may seem a little foreign at first, but pretty soon they’re going to want to migrate … to this pretty quickly, so we think that three years is very sensible.”

Shuster took the opportunity to use props to demonstrate the disadvantage the U.S. faces compared to its allies around the world.

“Air traffic controllers still have to manage with paper strips,” Shuster said as he displayed the small pieces of paper that ATCs around the country rely on to manage arrivals and departures. “If you go to the tower in Toronto, the tower in Heathrow or the tower in Hong Kong, it’s all done electronically, they have modern systems and I know that our air traffic controllers and NATCA, the union that represents them, knows that they are far behind these other countries with these systems.”

The approach is meant to deter missed deadlines on technology implementation, similar to those the FAA has experienced throughout the past decade.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is put increased accountability onto an entity that is not subject to varying appropriations and potential government shutdowns, is not subject to government procurement rules that slow it all down, and that allows for greater partnership between the air traffic controllers and the developers of the technology so that this technology is actually addressing directly what the controllers need,” Gribbin said.

Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, the White House’s “expansive plan” includes changes to permitting processes that would speed up large-scale infrastructure projects.

In response to concerns about the cost of implementing the technology, Gribbin said there are two main elements at play: equipping existing planes and developing the technology used in the towers.

“A fair number of planes have been equipped already — a fair amount of the fleet, especially the commercial fleet, so this will be something that will go hand in hand,” Gribbin said. “We’re going to focus on our part of that, which is insuring that we have positioned this new entity in a way where it has access to capital markets and has access to resources it needs [and] it’s not encumbered by a long and circuitous federal requirements — that they’re able to work hand in hand with the controllers to develop the best technology available.”

Other concerns include a shortage of air traffic controllers, which Gribbin said will be a continued point of conversation on Capitol Hill, and safety, for which the FAA would maintain “an aggressive safety enforcement role,” he said.

The funding for the plan will come from user fees paid to the nonprofit instead of taxpayer dollars, according to Gribbin, who explained that this money will be separate from infrastructure spending and “over and above” what Congress decides to appropriate in the budget.

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air traffic control, Bill Shuster, DJ Gribbin, Donald Trump, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Next Generation Air Transportation System, Reed Cordish, Trump administration
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