ORLANDO—Michael Huerta, whose five-year term as FAA administrator ended in January, said the effort to spin off U.S. air traffic control (ATC) from FAA failed because it became too focused on the structure of a proposed ATC entity instead of detailing solutions for making air traffic management more efficient in the U.S.
Huerta, who addressed Aviation Week Network’s MRO Americas conference here April 10, never took a position while FAA administrator on Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-Pennsylvania) proposal to create a federally chartered, not-for-profit corporation to manage and operate ATC, removing the responsibility from FAA. The ATC entity, modeled after NAV Canada, was to be run by a board comprised of representatives of ATC stakeholders—such as airlines, air traffic controllers, general aviation and pilots.
After a two-year push, Shuster dropped the effort in February, conceding there was insufficient support in Congress to pass legislation altering the structure of FAA. Looking back on the ATC reform debate, Huerta said he was “struck that everyone was talking past each other.”
Proponents of spinning off ATC from FAA “never talked about fiscal challenges FAA faced or the very real benefits” the agency’s NextGen ATC modernization program had delivered, Huerta said. “On the other side, opponents said everything is just fine. Neither argument was true then or is true now … What was missing was a facts-based discussion.”
Huerta said the focus on the structure of a new ATC entity meant the core problem being addressed—uncertainty about FAA funding and the agency’s ability to quickly tackle problems—became secondary. “I think where the debate was not successful was it very quickly devolved to what’s the structure [of the new ATC entity], not what’s the problem we’re addressing,” he explained. “By focusing on the structure and what the composition of the [proposed ATC entity’s] board looks like, it sets up a dynamic where everyone is thinking: how can I protect what I’ve got.”
Nevertheless, the status quo for funding FAA and the ATC system is “not sustainable,” Huerta said.
“During my tenure, we never began a fiscal year with certainty over” the agency’s budget, he said. “We’re in a time of great transition in aviation and aerospace. We can’t afford [for FAA] to be distracted over the possibility of being shut down in the next few months” because its authorization expires without renewal by Congress.
Huerta’s one concrete suggestion is “to move FAA and the Aviation Trust Fund out of budget caps”—meaning the agency’s finances would not become ensnared in federal budget deficit debates. Some Aviation Trust Fund money—largely made up of ATC system user fees—is being shifted away from FAA and the ATC system “to offset deficits elsewhere in the federal budget,” Huerta said. “Changing that would make a huge difference.”
Regarding user fees, Huerta noted there are now more registered commercial unmanned aircraft than commercial manned aircraft in the U.S., and “all those unmanned aircraft pay very little” into the system.
“It’s time to have an honest discussion about what the American public expects us to do [in terms of air traffic management] and how we pay for it,” Huerta said. “Drones now just pay a registration fee. It is certainly taking an increasing amount of resources [to manage drone traffic]. This is a system that works very well because users have a financial stake in it.”