Privatizing Air Traffic Control is a Red Herring Blocking Real Reform
June 17, 2017
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  • There are incredibly bright and enthusiastic groups working hard to modernize our air traffic management system and get the most out of both our extraordinary technology and exceptional people.

    But the greatest force resisting modernization efforts may well be us. People want to go where they want to go when they want to go there. As a result, airlines often schedule more flights than airports can manage in anything other than perfect weather (and sometimes not even then). But by pointing at all of the countries with far smaller air traffic operations and saying, “Look, they privatized,” we might just be looking in the wrong direction at the wrong solution.

    For over three decades, proponents of privatizing air traffic control have advanced the argument that separating the system from the federal government would improve efficiency and performance. That argument has yet to carry the day, and perhaps we’ve missed one very interesting point — its advocates might be modeling the wrong thing.

    Do we really want to look like Europe when it comes to our air traffic control system?

    Reducing block times and delays might actually be achieved by limiting access to the airspace by reserving time slots at airports. The U.S. has three airports under slot control now. In Europe, they have close to 60 airports with slot controls. That can’t be what the airlines or flying public really wants, can it?

    The discussion is helpful, however, in identifying areas we really need to improve. We do need long-term, stable and secure funding for air traffic control because we must continue to modernize as well as hire, train and retain capable people. We need to use available tools to borrow funds for capital projects, and we need to give executives more freedom and flexibility.

    The challenge with privatizing has been that the probability of political success is very low for the kind of reform being advanced. We would all frankly be far better off if President Trump and Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-Penn.) plan — which does raise important questions and challenges — fails fast so that we can get on with advancing real reforms.

    Perhaps we should consider just what type of aviation authority is advancing policies at the busiest airports in the world. In a real sense, don’t we have more in common with the complexities these airports confront with arrivals, departures, surface management and air traffic control?

    If you look at the list of the 20 busiest airports in the world, it tells an important story. Sixteen of the airports are regulated by air traffic control operations within a government entity — 80 percent. That includes six U.S. airports. Take them out of the equation, and public entities provide air traffic control to 10 of the remaining 14.

    If well over half of the busiest airports in the world have government-run air traffic control systems, should we assume that privatization is really such a slam dunk?

    I think not. 

    The good news is that many will continue to work to advance the modernization now underway. And, hopefully, the important questions being raised about funding and more independence will be addressed when the elephant in the room leaves.

    Craig Fuller is founder of aviation consultancy The Fuller Group. He previously served as president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, assistant for cabinet affairs to President Reagan and chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush.