Kate Hanni THE HILL
ATC: The Worst May Be yet to Come
May 23, 2016
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  • There is currently a dangerous effort underway to privatize our air nation’s traffic control system.  Any consumer who boards a plane regularly or in any way depends on air service should be extremely concerned.

    This effort, which would take our nation’s Air Traffic Control programs out of the FAA and place them under the authority of a non-governmental entity, have been recently labeled a lot of different things – privatization, corporatization, or creation of a corporate non-profit entity.  But make no mistake, no matter what the label, this proposal is a clear and direct move to take Congressional and public oversight of our air traffic control system away from Congress, and put it under the control of big, commercial airline interests.

    The reason is not hard to figure out.  In recent years, our nation’s big, commercial airlines have become more and more powerful.  They have increasingly consolidated, with now only 4 airlines controlling 80% of the market.  In the meantime, they have been shirking even more of their responsibility for consumers and communities.  Complaints are at an all-time high, seats are shrinking, baggage fees (for which they do not have to pay taxes) topped $5 billion in 2015, and their profits are set to top $17 billion.  And now, they want even more power over our air traffic control system.  The end result is that consumers and communities will likely have absolutely no recourse for delays, endless baggage fees, and complaints.

    It is a bit curious that the airlines have claimed that this effort was for the modernization of our air transportation system. Top airline CEOs have claimed before Congress that this proposal is about transforming our air transportation system so that it becomes more accountable to stakeholders.  However, under their plan, the only stakeholders they will be beholden to are themselves.  

    From a consumer and community standpoint, there are many things about this proposal to cause concern.  First, it is completely unclear how a privatized system would ensure that any voices besides the airlines and their hubs have sway.  A non-governmental entity with oversight over our ATC system would very likely become a rubber stamp for policies which could further erode customer service while making air travel even less affordable and less convenient.   When a plane sits on the tarmac for hours or airlines endlessly inconvenience passengers by overscheduling their flights, what recourses will customers have if the airlines are basically governing themselves?

    Congress still has a vital role to play when it comes to our ATC.  It was Congress that worked with consumers and to pass Passenger Bill of Rights.  Additionally, it is Congress that has put protections in place to ensure that the airlines serve smaller markets.  What will happen to routes to small and mid-sized markets when the airlines can decide what airports get funded, and what routes are “necessary” for our national air transportation system?   What happens when the airlines control all gate access and air traffic control towers?

    The answer: taxpayers would be even more on the hook.  We can already see what is happening now with the endless stream of baggage fees and taxes – and its consumers who end up footing the bill, while the airlines are set to have their most profitable year in decades.  If we allow the airlines to set all tax and fee levels, I can’t imagine the plight of consumers. Seat space?  The double decker seating plans that get circulated around blogs could quickly become a reality.  The airlines would be in charge of all gate access so it is unclear how any low-cost competitors could come into the market.

    There are many important issues that Congress should take up when it comes to our aviation system.  Removing all Congressional oversight and allowing the airlines to govern themselves is the wrong idea at the wrong time—and it presents a real threat to consumers.

    Kate Hanni is the Founder and former Executive Director of Fliers Rights. With more than 40,000 members, FlyersRights.org is the largest non-profit consumer organization in the United States representing airline passengers.