WASHINGTON (AP) — Spending on air traffic control operations has doubled over two decades, while productivity has declined substantially and efforts to improve performance have been ineffective, according to a report released Wednesday by a government watchdog.
The report by the Transportation Department's inspector general blames the decline in productivity at air traffic facilities on a culture resistant to change within the Federal Aviation Administration and the agency's failure to adopt business-like practices.
Lawmakers who want to remove air traffic operations from the FAA's control and turn them over to a nonprofit corporation pounced on the report as evidence the agency is incapable of modernizing its air traffic operations. The FAA has been engaged for more than decade in transitioning from a radar-based air traffic control system to one based on satellite navigation.
Decades of personnel, organizational and acquisition reforms have failed to slow the agency's cost growth, improve its productivity or improve its performance in modernizing air traffic operations, said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"This report shows that the FAA simply isn't suited to successfully modernize our nation's antiquated air traffic control system," he said. "The FAA remains a vast government bureaucracy, not a high-tech service provider."
Shuster is expected to introduce legislation within the next two months that would spin off the agency's air traffic operations to a nonprofit controlled by a board of aviation "stakeholders," including airlines, airports and others. The FAA would still be responsible for safety oversight. The airline industry, with the exception of Delta Air Lines, has been lobbying aggressively for the change.
Business aircraft operators are opposed to privatizing air traffic operations, fearing they'll have to pick up a larger share of the cost of operations and be forced out of some airports to make room for more airline flights. There is also opposition to privatization from key House and Senate Democrats.
"Tearing apart the FAA will not advance safety," said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "Congress should instead take this opportunity to improve the FAA, not privatize it."
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the senior Democrat on the House committee, is working on a proposal to make the entire FAA an independent government corporation in an effort to rid the agency of archaic personnel and procurement rules and overly bureaucratic procedures.
Clayton Foushee, FAA's director of audit and evaluation, said in a memo responding to the report that the agency has been more effective at controlling the cost of its operations than many other government agencies. Part of the reason costs have risen is expensive security measures taken since 2001 to protect against terrorist attacks and the dramatic increase in global hacking attacks, he said.
The FAA has also completed several new "complex and demanding" air traffic computer systems that are part of the larger, modernization effort, he said.
However, the inspector general's report says that while the FAA reports improvement in its management of such acquisitions, major programs continue to experience problems that delay the introduction of the new technologies and defer retirement of costly legacy systems.
FAA's overall budget grew from $8 billion in 1996 to nearly $16 billion in 2012. Air traffic operations — take-offs, landings and other aircraft handling by controllers — declined 23 percent from 2000 to 2012 due to a drop off in air travel as the result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Great Recession and other events.
But air traffic handling per controller dropped 25 percent at approach control facilities and 16 percent at facilities that handle high-altitude air traffic over four years ending in 2012, while the number of air traffic controllers employed by the FAA has remained level.
The FAA also continues to operate about the same number of air traffic facilities — 317 — instead of consolidating operations to save money, the report said. The agency also hasn't increased the number of airport towers operated by private contractors over the past 15 years even though the agency has acknowledged doing so could save money. It costs on average about $1.5 million less for a contractor to operate an airport tower than for the FAA to operate it, primarily due to lower staffing and salary levels, the report said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the doubling of funding was over two decades instead of the past decade.