Privatization of Hughes FAA Tech Center
Reviewing Realistic Options Might Offer Reasonable Expectations
Chairman LoBiondo, whose district includes the William J. Hughes Technical Center, is holding a hearing of his Aviation Subcommittee to hear witnesses on the FAA Reauthorization bill. The title of the hearing, Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Enabling Innovation in the National Airspace and the witness list, which includes Shelley J. Yak, Director of the Technical Center, will examine how the FAA has done in dealing with innovation. The other members of the panel include senior officials of private companies, all reside on the cutting edge of aviation—three utilize drones to deliver new product/services, one seeks to expand the use of aircraft to passengers and one seeks to explore space travel for individuals.
Ms. Yak’s organization is the FAA’s “testing laboratory”; there, new Air Traffic Control technologies, safety standards, material innovations, security protocols and many of the agency’s needs to assess the engineering/scientific merits of a specific aspect of aviation safety. For example, her technical staff is actively engaged in determining the reliability of the NextGen program and has experts involved in assessing the viability of the navigation/control systems being proposed for drones.
The Aviation Subcommittee Staff has prepared a Summary of Subject Matter, which usually defines the scope of the questions to be asked by the Members at the session and there is no direct reference to the statutory creation of “[a]n independent, nonprofit corporation outside the federal government would be created to modernize and provide control services” as mentioned by the PressofAC.com article.
Since that mention might cause the thousands of federal employees to react (plus there have been a number of recent reports on the “threat” to the Tech Center), it seems useful to objectively assess the possibility that Privatization/Corporatization would impact the staff at the Hughes Center:
- First and foremost, as Chairman of the House body responsible for writing the Reauthorization, it is highly unlikely that he would author a bill proposing to close or even spin off the largest federal facility in Rep. LoBiondo’s district.
- One of the theoretical arguments for separating the Air Traffic Organization is to provide independent “regulation” of the towers and centers. Since the Center’s research mission provides objective determinations of NextGen and other aspects of the proposed privatization, one could logically argue that retaining the Hughes organization as part of the federal government is consistent with that point of view.
- Assuming that some of the dogmatic libertarians, whose voices have suddenly gained an audience in the Washington policy debates, might determine that the Tech Center would function better in the private sector realm does not equate to all of these positions being terminated. Why?
a. The expertise resident at the Egg Harbor Township campus cannot be easily replicated at other public or private institutions.
b. Closing the research facility adjacent to the Atlantic City International Airport would put at risk the research which is required to demonstrate that the NextGen technology is safe and reliable. Without the Hughes Center imprimatur, Congress and the aviation community would likely be reluctant to allow these new systems to be used UNTESTED.
c. By forcing the privatized ATO to find a trusted authority to approve the most complex federal computer system for daily utilization would translate to delay while the necessary set of experts could be assembled and integrated, but also would equate to a higher price tag for this private sector review.
d. The text of the 2016 AIRR proposal evidenced the strong influence of NATCA, the controllers’ union. If spinning off the Tech Center would be floated, it is fair to assume that NATCA, AFGE and others would grab the cudgel to attack the displacement of these upper level jobs.
Even if the most unlikely outcome could happen (a very, very big assumption), there are alternatives which even Congress would be expected to consider; like:
- Being integrated into the Volpe Transportation Center. It is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation created to provide important research for all mode of transportation. Uniquely this is a federal agency receives no federal appropriations and must fund its expenses through sponsor-paid projects. The Center partners with public and private organizations to assess the needs of the transportation community, evaluate research and development endeavors, assist in the deployment of state-of-the-art transportation technologies, and inform decision- and policy-making through its comprehensive analyses. This premier organization prepares bids on specific RFPs and succeeds in these competitions. Its faculty is highly regarded.
- Acquisition by some of the comparable research institutions like Underwriters Laboratories or ASTM. These two private sector organizations are comparable to the Tech Center mission and have earned reputations for integrity. ASTM is already involved in FAA work.
- Integration with a university organization like the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory or the Princeton Plasma Physic Laboratory both of which benefit from their proximity to advanced research and thus may be privy to real time information about some of the emerging technology which characterize leading academic institutions.
- A little frightening might be the transition to for-profit organizations like the AT&T Bell Laboratory or GE Global Research. Both of these institutions have been responsible for major technology break throughs and their employees share in the benefits of those developments.
Ms. Yak leads a valuable American asset. The fears inspired by the various news reports of threats to the Tech Center may well be caustic to her team’s moral. Not knowing what the future may hold is problematic. A review of the realistic options may reduce that anxiety, reduce the uncertainty and offer some reasonable expectations.