We are talking about the Federal Aviation Administration and a bill in the House of Representatives that has an iffy future. The bill is a funding bill, and the author, House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa), believes the government could save money and improve safety by sending one major function of the FAA to the private sector.
The bill would spin the nation's air traffic control system off into its own nongovernmental agency. The nonprofit would be completely independent of the FAA, a step that Shuster believes will speed up the modernization of the air traffic control system that is, he says, bogged down at the FAA.
That independence includes being free of federal operating funds. According to Shuster, a "stable, self-sustaining and fair user fee funding structure" would sustain the organization -- not unlike the fees paid by airlines that currently fund air traffic control. The difference would be that the nonprofit would set the fees and decide how broadly applied they should be.
Regardless of funding, the agency's first task would be to transfer from the radar technology -- in use for the last 75 years or so -- to a new satellite-based system. Federal budget cuts and bureaucracy have stalled the changeover under the FAA.
An op-ed in Flying Magazine raises a fundamental question about privatization: Why bother? The author points out that the FAA has its flaws, but its safety record is more than impressive: "It overspends, over-regulates, under plans and still manages to provide world-class services."
The Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx agreed about the agency's safety record at a recent media briefing. He added that a more thorough response to Shuster's proposal will have to wait until the bill is introduced.
Other questions will remain unanswered until then, too. How the change will benefit travelers, for example, is unclear. How will taxpayers benefit when a massive operation is taken out of the federal budget?
For some, the only question that matters is, how will the change affect safety?
The Hill, "Feds throw cold water on GOP air traffic control privatization plan," Keith Laing, July 8, 2015
Flying Magazine, "ATC Privatization: Be Very Afraid," Robert Goyer, Jun 16, 2015