FAA administrator Michael Huerta said it is now the “right time to be asking critical questions” about the structure of US air traffic control (ATC), citing a stable and safe existing ATC system and a strong US airline industry.

Huerta has previously mostly stayed out of the debate over whether to separate ATC from FAA and create an independent entity to manage air traffic in the US. But speaking March 2 at the US Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit, Huerta said he is “eager to engage” in the discussion going forward.

Huerta was speaking publicly about ATC for the first time since US President Donald Trump suggested that FAA’s NextGen ATC modernization program may be “way over budget [and] way beyond schedule” because Huerta is not a pilot.

Trump has said NextGen “is a waste of tremendous amounts of money because the system is a bad system.”

Huerta, whose five-year term as FAA administrator lasts until Jan. 7, 2018, said, “I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we’d all like to move faster” on NextGen. But he also defended the program, which he described as an “ongoing modernization” of ATC.

“FAA can demonstrate that [NextGen] has already delivered $2.7 billion in benefits,” Huerta said, adding that the agency is confident the long-term benefits delivered by NextGen will outweigh the investment in the program.

He said the installation of Data Comm—which allows ATC towers to transmit flight clearance information to pilots via text message—at 55 US airports has been an “unqualified success story.” The Data Comm initiative, which is part of the NextGen program, is “now 29 months ahead of schedule and under budget,” Huerta said. He added that the savings will be used to install Data Comm at seven additional airport towers.

The administrator said safety must be the guiding driver behind any reform of FAA, and argued that—given the complexities of US air space and the volume of air traffic in the US—ATC is already relatively efficient.

“Aviation has never been safer,” Huerta said. “In fact, in the span of most of our careers, flying in the United States has become exponentially safer … It is certainly the case that virtually everyone in this room recognizes that we operate the largest, safest, most complex air traffic management system in the world … Doing what we are doing today in aviation is already pretty darn close to doing the impossible.”

Aaron Karp aaron.karp@penton.com