WASHINGTON, DC -- Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens today addressed participants in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Conference. Following is a transcript of his remarks and a questions and answer session that followed:
Thank you very much, Rick. It’s nice to be here with you and the Alaskans that are here. And, I thank you for coming down.
Even though I’m approaching 82, I still talk to some of you in the towers from time to time. As a matter of fact, I went back about five years ago and got my floatplane rating so I could go wander around Alaska a little bit better and enjoy it a little bit more. We do appreciate everything you do in terms of running those towers – total air control activity.
You know, as Rick was saying, we have particular appreciation for anyone who is dealing with aviation in Alaska. We’re dealing with the highway bill now in the Senate and I have to remind them that we have one major road in a State that’s one-fifth the size of the United States. We travel by air. We’re totally related to the air. Seventy percent of our communities can be reached only by air or maybe by boat once in a while in the summer time. We are air-minded people from the point-of-view of cargo and passengers, mail.
Most of our problems related to air really are high fatality rate in Alaska. It’s caused by a lot of things, but I think its distance, weather, and a lot of things are added to it. But we have the highest accident rate in the country, so we’re dedicated to improving safety and we’re trying to find some way to get those accident rates down. I know you know that as part of these efforts we now have our Medallion Program, which is a volunteer program by all air carriers to try to go through a series of safety-related concepts – education, recertification, all things that are necessary to maintain flight proficiency – but also dealing with the concept of how to get the accident rates down through a system that is known as Capstone. I know some of you when we first got Capstone came to see me from your national and said that they had some problem with it, but the ADS-B technology they use instead of radar gives us the opportunity to manage air space in a different way. And, our controllers are working closely with the FAA to test the system in Alaska. I have personally flown it and I think it has great strengths. There are some weaknesses that are being pointed out, but I do think we can make this system work for rural America first, and I think it would improve our problem with safety in Alaska.
There are now 700 radars in the air traffic control system. Compared to radar dishes, these ADS-B towers are much less expensive to build and to maintain. And, I think you’re going to find that we’re going to have to find some way to put them into the national system. We do have to have a way to deal with some of these costs, because the increasing cost on this system is enormous. We are hoping that we can find ways to save money in putting this new Capstone system into the total system, but the problem of financing this system as a whole is one we’re spending a lot of time on now in our Committee.
I’d be glad to answer any questions you have when I finish, but I’ve got to tell you, there’s no question that with the advent of a whole new generation of smaller jets, we’re going to have to do something about modernizing the total system. There has been a dramatic drop in accidents in Western Alaska since Capstone was implemented there. I do believe that we should examine new technology throughout the system to see if we can find ways to improve safety, and save lives, and eliminate risks of the system as it continues to expand. We are still ahead of the rest of the world, I think, in our capabilities to handle our air traffic control.
Clearly, the ability to try and find ways to utilize new technology, it may be deserving to some of your people, but I think it has to come because new technology in our system and elsewhere – I’ve been told that in the communication system every new generation was 50 percent more efficient and cost 50 percent less.
As we’ve dealt with some of these things in the air traffic control system, the costs constantly have expanded and there is no question that the (Aviation) Trust Fund revenues continue to decline and general fund monies are harder to come by. The general fund monies come from, as you know, a percentage – 7.5 percent ticket tax, is the generator for the Trust Fund for the total air traffic control system. But, as the cost of those tickets comes down through competition or through the innovations that are taking place in the airline system, the Fund is not growing as it was anticipated to grow. I don’t think we can predict that there will be higher airfares in the future, not significantly higher to put enough money in the Trust Fund to do all that has to be done to meet the cost of modernization of this system.
The Department of Transportation Inspector General recently testified before our Committee that the cost increase in operations have failed to modernize efforts and there is an increasing tight squeeze financially on the overall agency, and there’s no question, as I said, we have to face up to a way to modernize the system without increasing costs. How we will do that is still a matter of debate. I really do not have any answers here for you today, but the towers are now 30 years old, the TRACON facilities are 34 years old. The primary en route radars are 27 years old. The secondary radars are 26 years old. The en route control centers are 40 years old. And, I’ve been in the Senate about 37 years and people think I’ve been here too long. All of your system was in place before I came to the Senate.
So, there’s no question that my job now as Chairman of this Commerce Committee is to try to work with the Administration, work with the industry, work with all of you to find some way, some way to modernize the system and get ready to take into the system these new microjets. I’m told they will soon flood our airways. There are 2,500 microjets on order today and we conservatively estimate that there will be 4,500 within 10 to 11 years. One engine manufacturer gave us an estimate that there will be 8,000 by 2023 – that’s the year I’ll be 100 years old and I don’t think I’ll stay as long as Strom did, I’ll tell you.
But, you know, you add to that another 1,000 cargo jet aircraft and the impact we’re going to have on increasing cargo planes coming in from the rest of the world, we’ve got to concentrate and we’ve got to have cooperation and thinking in all elements of this system to make sure we get it done and get it done right. It’s not going to do any good for us to get bills out of Congress and find that they’re not acceptable to the Administration. It’s not going to do us any good to try to get bills out of Congress that are unacceptable to organizations like yours because you have the power to stop them, we all know that. I don’t like the word stakeholders too well, but there are stakeholders throughout this air traffic control system and there has to be a new stream of money available to this system. We’ve talked of bonding. The Mineta Commission first suggested that in 1997, eight years ago. They recommended a performance-based organization for air traffic services with a borrowing authority, but we have to find some way to avoid the turf battles of Capitol Hill and find solutions so that we can move into this whole new century with the confidence we can provide a system that will last another 40 years.
But, very clearly, the system that you and I and everyone depends on is reaching the end of its days and we have to find a way to modernize the system within this decade or future generations will pay a terrible price in not only safety, but in not being accommodated, in not being able to deal with these new small business jets. The whole future of aviation depends upon the modernization of the system that you will work with everyday and I hope you’ll work with us as we try to do just that. It’s nice to be here with you. Thank you very much.
Questions & Answers with Audience
Question: First of all, thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate it. When you talk about modernization and cost savings, I think it’s imperative that NACTA and air traffic controllers be involved in the development and testing of new technology. I think that there’s a tendency now to not involve us from the ground up. So, I think if you’re talking about modernization and the cost savings that it’s imperative that we be involved in that and I also want to say that you asked us to work with you with the modernization and we will do that.
Chairman Stevens: Thank you very much. Well, I think you should be involved, there’s no question about that. You’re an integral part of the system. But, as these systems evolve, let’s go back to when we brought Capstone back to Alaska, your organization came to see me and said you didn’t even want to have it tested in Alaska. We had to test it in Alaska. We’re going to realize that we have to test a series of things and I hope that you’ll be cooperative with us and test those things that may improve the system and reduce costs. If we don’t, if we don’t do that then your organization is going to suffer more than anyone else. You have nearly the highest pay of all government employees on average and in order to keep that system working, we’re going to have to modernize it. So, we have to have your help to do that.
Question: I appreciate you as well coming and I want to echo my brother’s comments on that. I’m Chuck Adams and I’m from Grand Forks, North Dakota and I’m one of the 69 or 71 depending on whose math you use in the privatization fight. I guess my question sir would be this – the modernization in some Senators minds on Capitol Hill equals privatization.
Chairman Stevens: There are those who mention that, there are those who mention that and if we’re not capable of finding a way to bond or raise the money for this within the next year or two that will become even more and more prevalent. We have to have the support to find a financial mechanism and I’ve been talking to Ms. Blakey about that – how we might find a way to create a financing corporation and let it borrow money and then have that money be paid back to the Trust Fund over a period of years. If we can do that, it will take some cooperation with the Budget Committee, the Office of Management and Budget, the Finance Committee, a lot of people have to agree, but we need the money up front. You can’t pay for modernization over 10 years. You have to have it now and in a couple, three years because it will take up 15 years. If we can do it right and create a bonding authority and have that bonding authority borrow the money, bond the agency and spend the money for modernization, I think we’re going to be 50 percent of the way home. Unless we can get that, the pressure will be on to cut costs, I mean cut all costs to the point where you have additional cash flow available to spend an increasing amount of money every year. I don’t think you can cut costs enough to get the amount of money that’s necessary to do that. But, if you modernize then costs in the future would in fact be less – let’s put it this way, you can expand the system without increased costs if you modernize it. We’ve got these new jets, these new cargo planes coming in and they all have to be absorbed in the system without increasing costs any further. You can only do that through modernization and new technology injected into the system with everybody’s approval. In order to do that you have to have up front money. We’re going to have to have money within the next two to three years to pay for that in time to take care of this onslaught of the new planes that we envision coming into the system. I appreciate your help if we can find a way to do that.
Question: I’m over at Dulles Tower. You mentioned working with you on modernization. I think most of us agree, we’d love to have as much as you can give to us. Last year at Dulles, for example, we went up from 1,400 operations to close to 1,800 and then over 2,000 a day at Dulles. There were no procedures put into effect ahead of time. There were no plans made by facility or FAA management to help us, no changes in air space, and no traffic management initiatives at all, plus our staffing went down. So, I certainly agree with you on modernization. My question is, since you’re asking the controllers rightly so to work with you on modernization, what do you intend to do to make FAA respond to your request to accept changes and come into the 21st century as management?
Chairman Stevens: Well, I think management changes follow changes in technology. I don’t think you can really get management to change when they are dealing with 40-year-old technology. You’re going to have to get different technology and some of it envisions, as you know, taking some of the burden off all of you by giving you additional technical capability to handle more aircraft without really overburdening your systems. I’ve seen some of those. I’ve seen some of the classified systems that are capable of handling incoming missiles and identifying them. Those systems could be adapted to what you’re doing. They could be adopted to what you are doing. It just takes a technological base to do it and I do think our goal is to find ways to make it easier to handle the air traffic control system and your jobs, not harder. I don’t think that bringing new technology in should add to your workload is what I’m saying. At the same time, some of you may feel threatened by that new technology and I think we have to really admit that and have you understand it and help us decide what technology would be in the best interest of the whole traveling public, including those people working with it. And, we’ve got to adopt some of that new technology to reduce the workload of air traffic controllers and reduce the risk that will be associated with the modification of the system. It’s not going to be easy. I understand what you’re saying. I think we should work with you and I think you should work with us. This has got to be a team effort to beat this and maintain the best air traffic control system in the world. Nice to be with you.