Privatizing air-traffic control won’t fly
June 6, 2017
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  • I want to fly on airliners overseen by a privatized air-traffic control system, don’t you?

    Our current system, run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), guided 8.7 million flights in 2015, the latest year for which data are available. At any given time, 7,000 airliners are aloft across the 5 million square miles of airspace in the country. It’s among the safest such systems in the world, having gone eight years since a deadly crash.

    With 14,000 air-traffic controllers working in 476 towers, 21 air-route traffic control centers, and 197 terminal radar approach control facilities — backed by 6,000 systems specialists and 55.3 million miles of cable — it is also highly complex.

    President Donald Trump wants to turn this over to a “private nonprofit.” He called the system described above “an ancient, broken, antiquated system that doesn’t work.”

    This new entity would be run by a board consisting of representatives of airlines, aviation trade groups, airports and, or so Trump says, the air-traffic controllers’ union. The FAA would have a nominal oversight role. As usual with Republican proposals (think the repeal of Obamacare), this is about a tax cut. The current taxes for air-traffic control would go away. Taxes for airport improvement would remain, or so we’re told.

    Instead, “user fees” would fund an even more advanced system, using GPS technology to speed traffic and make more use of airspace. Trump promises it would be “self-sustaining” from a funding perspective, even though the FAA has struggled for years to attain adequate congressional backing for the Next Generation system. The complexity of the current system and the untested nature of NextGen make it open to interpretation. One person’s foot-dragging is another’s prudence.

    Trump blames bureaucracy. “If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster and safer travel — a future where 20 percent of a ticket price doesn’t go to the government, and where you don’t have to sit on a tarmac or circle for hours and hours over an airport,” he said.

    As usual with this president, one must ask, “Where’s the con?” The obvious one is more crony capitalism, where airlines, already heavily subsidized and benefiting from decades of virtually no antitrust enforcement to ensure competition, gain even more power. The big carriers have wanted this for years. And don’t forget, airline deregulation in the Carter administration worked out exactly the opposite of what its architects wanted. It helped give us today’s big airline cartel and a flying “experience” somewhere between prison intake and being moved like cattle 

    Nonprofits make money and who’s to say where it would go, who would benefit, and, being “private,” how transparent it would be? But many Republicans would support it because they believe almost all government is bad as a matter of principle. Considering that another of their fundamental beliefs is skepticism about science and expertise (“elites”), this seems a bad combination for an air-traffic control system.

    The only country with a truly privatized system is Canada, where NavCanada can borrow and raise private capital as the Trump “nonprofit” would do. Canada is also a fraction of the population of the United States, arguably benefits from its close connections with our FAA system, and has much less of a propensity to attract grifters 

    Counterintuitively, the privatization scheme is the rollout of Trump’s infrastructure initiative — recall he promised to spend $1 trillion on it during the campaign. But there are no plans for the high-speed trains that other advanced urbanized nations have — indeed, Trump’s budget  wants to gut Amtrak. No plans for investing in the water systems of cities such as Flint, Mich. Instead, “infrastructure” is Trumpian newspeak for “giveaway to the private sector.”