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Washington insiders doubt success of ATC privatisation

Story updated on 14 September to add comments from the National Business Travel Association, which opposes ATC privatisation. See the last two paragraphs.

Supporters of an overhaul of US air traffic control (ATC) expressed doubt on 13 September that the US Senate will pass a controversial proposal that would privatise US ATC.

Speaking during an airline industry event hosted by trade group Airlines for America, former US secretary of transportation James Burnley says a bill that would privatise ATC will likely pass the US House of Representatives, but then fall into a "black hole" in the US Senate.

The Senate is unlikely to pass the bill, he predicts.

Instead, the US Congress will likely end up passing a short-term funding bill that lacks ATC overhaul provisions, a move that would push the fight to overhaul ATC into next year, Burnley adds.

Others agreed, with US Republican representative Paul Mitchell saying Shuster's bill is "going to take a whole lot of work in the Senate".

Introduced by House transportation committee chairman Bill Shuster, the bill would strip ATC from the FAA, placing it under management of a private corporation run by the aviation industry.

Shuster's bill would also authorise long-term funding for the FAA.. Congress is under pressure to pass an authorisation bill by the end of September, when the FAA's current spending expires.

Supporters, which include most US airlines, argue that the FAA has been largely unable to implement the sweeping ATC modernisation effort known as NextGen.

Burnley and others largely blame the National Business Travel Association (NBAA) for difficulties facing Shuster's bill. Burnley said the NBAA has spread a "campaign of disinformation and scare mongering".

The NBAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from FlightGlobal, but the group has warned that an airline-controlled ATC system could hinder the business aviation industry's access to US airspace, particularly airspace in smaller communities.

Burnley says, however, that the threat to small communities is "the status quo", arguing that inadequate airspace technology will lead airlines to cut service at smaller communities.

DJ Gribbin, special counsel for infrastructure policy to president Donald Trump, says the business aviation industry has opposed Shuster's bill even though the legislation fully addresses all of the industry's concerns.

Gribbin concedes "air traffic control reform isn't going to fix" the delay-ridden US ATC system, but he says it would be the best means to make improvements.

Change is needed because the FAA's current "procurement process for technology is so long", he adds. "We want to pursue NextGen improvements" without the funding problems.

The FAA relies on congressional authorisation for the majority of its funding, but Congress has a long history of passing only short-term bills. Such bills hinder the FAA's ability to execute expensive, long-term projects like NextGen, say ATC overhaul supporters.

The NBAA tells FlightGlobal ATC privatisation would increase the nation's deficit by $100 billion and delay implementation of ATC improvements, citing reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office.

"ATC privatisation amounts to nothing more than a wholesale giveaway of the nation's aviation system to the airlines, so that they can run it for their own benefit, in their own business interests, and not in the public's best interest," the NBAA tells FlightGlobal in an email.

On 26-27 September 2017, FlightGlobal is hosting the Flight Safety Symposium. Find out more at http://www.flightglobalevents.com/flight-safety-symposium-2017?cmpid=ILC|CONF|FGCON-2017-1205-GLOB-fgcon_fss17_c

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