Washington Tea Leaves on ATC Privatization

atc privatization
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ATC Privatization

In the absence of clear messages, one must read tea leaves.

After a recent White House meeting with Airline and Airport executives, February 9, 2017, A4A’s  President and CEO, Nick Calio immediately claimed “that Trump was ‘extraordinarily positive’ when airline executives urged him to spin off air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation…Asked if Trump committed to back a bill to do that, Calio said: ‘I think he’s on track to do that’…The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks.”

ATC Privatization

(Rep. Shuster, Mr. Calio, Rep. Larson)

That optimistic, aggressive view of the ATC privatization has been a consistent character of the coalition in support of this proposed transformation!

One of the major, if not somewhat surprising, proponents of moving the ATO outside of the federal government has been NATCA, the air traffic controllers’ union. The labor organization issued a press release in favor of Chairman Shuster’s AIRR. “After extremely careful review, consideration, and deliberation, we have reached a decision: NATCA supports this bill.

One might have expected that NATCA would issue some indication of support for the A4A statement about the meeting with President Trump.

trisha gilbert ATC PrivatizationInstead, its Executive Vice President Trisha Gilbert was quoted as follows:

She “acknowledged that many members are worried about the future as a result of media speculation over efforts to reduce the federal workforce, cut or freeze pay, change federal retirement benefits, and ‘countless other assaults on federal employees and their unions’.

‘Together, we will surely face many challenges as we manoeuvre through the many proposals for change and deal with the possibilities that FAA reauthorization – expiring September 30 – may bring,’ she said. She also noted the current ‘political rhetoric’ suggesting the possibility of a government shutdown due to the continuing resolution expiring on April 28.

‘We do expect to continue to see many attacks on federal employees and federal sector unions. Rest assured, we are prepared for these battles. We will remain vigilant and work to mitigate the effects on NATCA members and on the safety of the NAS. As we always have, we will work hard in the field, on Capitol Hill and with the Administration to educate policymakers and aviation stakeholders on our issues. We will hold our heads high and know that we are right on message, commitment, and dedication. Our members’ solid, credible work speaks for itself.’

All reasonable opponents will quickly realise the ally they have in NATCA and work with us to maintain and improve the safety of the NAS. The unreasonable we will have to work around. We will continue to rely and build upon the strong relationships we have cultivated among those in government agencies, industry, labour, media, and Congress’.”

[quote published by English journal ATM.net.]

air traffic controller staffing

Not the stirring endorsement which Mr. Calio might have expected. Indeed, the “federal workforce reduction” phrase created the perfect predicate for a recitation of the argument that a federally chartered corporation would be able to better match employment levels than the current Congressionally/ OMB controlled mess. Is the NATCA message to Mr. Calio “damning with faint praise (none)?”

ALPA, an opponent to a de-governmentalization, issued its “We Keep America Flying”, 2017 Agenda and that blueprint:

calio ATC Privatization“At a news briefing held today, Capt. Canoll highlighted many of ALPA’s top safety, security, and international issues, including:

• Enforcing open and fair skies.

• Ensuring the safe shipment of hazardous materials and dangerous goods.

• Maintaining the current minimum first officer qualifications.

• Attracting the next generation of airline pilots.

• Safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems.

• Strengthening voluntary safety reporting programs.

• Addressing cargo safety and security.

• Installing secondary cockpit barriers on commercial aircraft.

• Improving support for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program.

• Addressing cybersecurity on aircraft.

‘The most important safety feature on any flight is a well-trained, highly experienced, and qualified airline pilot,’ concluded Capt. Canoll. ‘ALPA is working with the administration, Congress, and regulators to advance the future of air transportation by fostering a competitive, safe, and secure North American airline industry. Whether it’s a cargo, mainline, or regional flight operation, ALPA pilots keep America flying’.”

ALPA has great credibility on the Hill; pilots are recognized as having a major stake in safety and its PAC is substantial. Mentioning “secondary cockpit barriers” and omitting any reference to ATC privatization may suggest that this politically astute union does not regard this transformational change is much of a threat.

Washington is not a place where the players post billboards advertising their positions for all to see. A4A has been unwavering in its pursuit of the change in the ATC funding, governance and “ownership.” In the absence of clear messages, one must read tea leaves. Neither NATCA, a proponent, nor ALPA, an opponent, has reasserted its position on the Shuster proposal. The absence of such a statement may be insignificant or may be an inkling of their lack of prioritization of this innovation.


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