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Thousands at shore's FAA Tech Center unsettled by Trump budget

The Trump budget revives an idea to study privatizing Air Traffic Control functions, which could impact a significant portion of the work done at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

At the William J. Hughes Technical Center just beyond where most travelers turn for economy parking at the Atlantic City International Airport, about 3,000 federal employees and contractors are keeping a nervous eye on the Trump budget.

Trump's so-called skinny budget revives an idea to shift air traffic control functions now run by the Federal Aviation Administration to an "independent non-governmental organization."

Between 1,000 and 2,000 federal and contractor jobs -- if not more -- at the Tech Center in Egg Harbor Township are connected to air traffic control operations and research. By some estimates, most of the Tech Center's work touches on air traffic control in some fashion.

The center has long been a jobs creator in Atlantic County, bringing a desirable population of highly educated, professional workers to an area whose economy is better known for its shrinking casino landscape and foreclosures.

The FAA's authorization also expires at the end of September, so the Tech Center's funding under the Department of Transportation's budget is already the subject of hearings, said Jason Galanes, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose district includes the center and who heads the House Aviation Subcommittee.

That subcommittee will hold a hearing April 4 to hear testimony from Shelley Yak, the center's director.

The center, and its NextGen research park, focuses on technology, testing, software, human factors, psychology, systems, and other aspects of air traffic safety and organization.

Also at the Tech Center are air marshal training and TSA research facilities, but both are under the Department of Homeland Security, which is not being targeted for similar cuts and privatization.

The Tech Center has been subject to fiscal pressures and lapses in funding from the federal budget before, with employees furloughed in years past, and, more recently, contracts, hiring, and research slowed or frozen.

The air traffic privatization idea has been around before and has some significant support from private industry. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial headlined "Major Trump to Ground Control," called it "the President's good idea" that would bring innovation and efficiency to the nation's air space.

Trump's budget will include language to "initiate a multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the ATC function of the FAA to an independent, non-governmental organization."

What that means for Tech Center employees is unclear. Whether the center would work with private industry in its air traffic control functions, or be privatized altogether, has not been determined.

The NextGen program, funded with tens of billions of dollars, has come under criticism from some in Congress and elsewhere for being slow to implement new technologies and fully modernize air traffic control.

Galanes said LoBiondo, who is also working to stop Trump budget cuts to the Coast Guard and increases in flood insurance costs that also affect his district in South Jersey, is already focused on the future of the Tech Center and its funding.

"This budget was intentionally light on details, hence the nickname `skinny budget,' " Galanes said. "Specific budget priority numbers from the administration will come out later this spring.

"As with any federal agency, Congress will decide the funding levels, not the administration," he added. "The FAA authorization expires the end of September, so that is something the House Aviation Subcommittee is already working on via stakeholder hearings and having completed its third hearing on March 8."

Officials at the FAA declined to comment directly. In response to questions about the impact of air traffic privatization, the FAA issued a statement welcoming the "coming dialogue" about the future of air traffic control functions that the Trump budget would trigger, while stressing the need to balance current safety with future technological advances.

"This high-level draft proposes a multi-year reauthorization plan to modernize the FAA and shift the air traffic control function to a non-governmental organization," the statement said. "The goal is to make the system more efficient and innovative without compromising our core mission of safety.
"We are encouraged that the administration is beginning the dialogue on the long-term needs of the FAA," the statement continues. "We are proud of what we have accomplished at the FAA and look forward to contributing to the effort to modernize our system while remaining focused on our primary mission of safety."

What that will mean for the thousands of employees at the Tech Center and for a local economy that wants to increase its ability to draw and retain these professional and highly educated people to the area and its schools, not lose them, will be watched closely.