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Federal Aviation Administration: Preliminary Observations of Potential Air Traffic Control Restructuring Transition Issues

GAO-16-386R Published: Feb 10, 2016. Publicly Released: Feb 10, 2016.
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What GAO Found

Based on our literature review and preliminary discussions with experts, several transition issues would need to be addressed if the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system were to be restructured, including transition issues related to determining the funding and finance structure of the new entity, transferring assets, separating the safety regulator from the ATC entity, mitigating potential impacts to different airspace users’ access to airspace, human capital, and other issues. For example, determining the finance structure of the new entity will require consideration of several factors, including: determining the process for developing the funding and fee structure, overseeing the fee structure, and mitigating financial risk and liability issues. In addition, separating the safety organization from the ATC entity would require determining how to delineate roles and responsibilities between the two entities, ensuring continued coordination of ongoing work and mitigating potential impacts to the remaining safety organization. In our discussions, experts stated that addressing these issues will take time and developing a comprehensive plan and allowing time to transition will be important.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 1987, several countries have shifted the responsibility for providing ATC services from national civil aviation authorities, to independent, self-financed air navigation service providers (ANSP) with either public or private ownership. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operates both the ATC service and is the safety regulator. Over the past two decades, U.S. aviation stakeholders have debated whether the FAA should remain the entity that operates and modernizes the ATC system or whether a restructured entity should take on this role. In 2014, we found that, according to stakeholders and FAA officials we interviewed, it is important to identify what problem or problems separating ATC services out of FAA is intended to solve, before proceeding with it as a solution. Specifically, the current system faced challenges related to (1) mitigating the effects of an uncertain fiscal environment and (2) modernizing the ATC system.These are among the issues that stakeholders and literature review mentioned as concerns. Such concerns may be driving the debate on a potential restructuring.

GAO was asked to explore potential transition issues to be addressed if the current U.S. ATC organization was restructured. This report provides preliminary information on the nature and scope of key issues associated with such a transition based on our ongoing review of transition issues associated with a potential ATC restructure. We identified transition issues primarily through a review of our prior related work, available literature on restructuring of ATC organizations as well as through exploratory interviews with academics, professionals in the U.S. aviation industry, officials involved in transitions in other countries—Canada, the United Kingdom (UK), and New Zealand, and experts with a range of expertise to speak on these ATC transition issues. We identified experts through a contract with the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), literature on ATC reform, and related GAO reports. This report is based on the results of interviews to date with 29 of 32 selected experts. For our final product we plan to follow up with each expert for a second round of data collection, using a more structured set of questions to allow for more quantification of their collective views as well as obtain FAA and industry stakeholder positions on potential transitions issues. We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Transportation (DOT). Via email, the Director, Audit Relations and Program Improvement in the Office of the Secretary of DOT told us that DOT, including FAA, did not have any comments in response to the draft report.

For more information, contact Gerald L. Dillingham, Ph.D. at (202) 512-2834 or

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