Jack Pelton THE HILL
Big Airlines Running Air Traffic Control – What Could Go Wrong?
August 3, 2017
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  • The annual EAA AirVenture fly-in at Oshkosh, Wis., is the must-attend event of the general aviation year, drawing 590,000 people and 10,000 airplanes in categories from sport and recreational flyers to astronauts and everyone in between. The event celebrates individual passion and innovation through the freedom of flight that we enjoy in the U.S. unlike anywhere else in the world.

    This year we saw the Blue Angels, a 75th anniversary tribute to the Doolittle Raid flown by vintage B-25 bombers, and a reunion of Apollo astronauts, not to mention thousands of flying machines large and small. Unfortunately, this year’s festivities took place against the backdrop of a major threat to free skies: the proposed, so-called “privatization” of the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system.

    That’s right: a bill now before Congress, supported by President Trump, would remove day-to-day operations for ATC from direct management by the Federal Aviation Administration and hand the whole thing over to a non-profit corporation controlled by commercial aviation interests. This is not just a bad idea – it is a disingenuous attempt to disguise a huge corporate giveaway as a pro-market reform, deepening the very problems it is intended to fix.

    It’s also not privatization in any meaningful sense of the word. Real privatization means applying for-profit principles and benefits to a market opportunity with the goal of enhancing choice, efficiency and freedom. This proposal does none of that — it simply creates a corporate monopoly largely under the control of commercial aviation interests.

    Advocates for the mislabeled “privatization” of ATC argue that it would make commercial air travel faster, cheaper and safer by enabling speedy adoption of new technology – but these claims don’t stand up.

    Here’s an example: the FAA is rapidly modernizing the country’s ATC infrastructure, employing a new satellite-based GPS system called NextGen. It has already transitioned to new technology at all 20 of the country’s “enroute” centers for managing high-altitude traffic, and is using satellite technology to reduce congestion at 12 of the country’s “metroplex” air traffic hubs. General aviation has been using and benefiting from GPS technologies for navigation, instrument approaches, and direct routing for decades. NextGen has already saved around $1.6 billion, with another $11.4 billion in projected savings over the next 15 years. And the benefits aren’t just financial: more efficient routing and scheduling means lower fuel consumption, a smaller carbon footprint, fewer delays and less time in the air for passengers.

    This is not a love note to the FAA. The agency has challenges. But air traffic operations are not among them. The system works. Most delays in the system, often cited by proponents as a justification for privatization, are caused by airlines overscheduling limited resources such as available runways and gates. When bad weather moves in, the effects of this overscheduling are compounded, resulting in airplanes backing up across the system. FAA’s air traffic controllers are efficiently and safely moving aircraft through the airspace, they simply have no place to go when they get there.

    NextGen, whether fielded by the FAA or a privatized entity will serve to modernize what is already an effective system air traffic system but will do nothing to address the core problem of delays; a lack of airport and runway capacity to meet the scheduling whims of the airline industry. We strongly support the modernization of the air traffic system for its own sake, but so-called privatization of ATC would leave implementation of complex new systems to a consortium of airlines that have not exactly distinguished themselves in matters of technological prowess in recent years.

    Arguments based on safety are also bogus. The fact is America’s air traffic system is the safest in the world, despite being the busiest one in the world. It is safer now than in any previous period. It’s hard to see how pseudo-privatization, with all the hazards of “changing horses midstream” and removing congressional oversight, could possibly improve on this record.

    Precedents for privatization in other countries are not without difficulties. In Australia, privatization lead to an immediate and dramatic drop in general aviation flight activity. In Canada, fees had to be dramatically increased to cover fixed costs when revenue fell during the most recent economic downturn further compounding a problem of reduced flight activity. In the UK, taxpayers were forced to bail out the nation’s privatized air traffic system when flight activity plummeted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

    Given ATC’s critical role as a backbone of the U.S. economy, in the event of financial difficulties the government would undoubtedly be forced to step in with a taxpayer-funded bailout. Like financial institutions in the last decade, a privatized ATC system would simply be too big to fail – only now without congressional oversight and funding, making such a debacle that much more likely.

    There are plenty of other reasons for concern. General aviation enthusiasts like myself rely on the unfettered and equal access to airports ensured by Congress and overseen by the FAA, but commercial airlines would have no reason to maintain the same degree of access to other users of the system, endangering America’s thriving general aviation marketplace, and with it millions of jobs. Many within the Pentagon have voiced concerns about privatization’s implications for

    national security. And why should we simply turn over billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded infrastructure to corporate control for free?

    The one rationale that makes any sense – protecting funding from the whims of a deadlocked Congress – isn’t really an argument for privatization at all. True, the FAA’s modernization program was delayed by the government shutdown in 2013 and years of inconsistent funding by Congress, but this is hardly a reason to turn the whole show over to an unelected board of companies whose primary concern is profit-driven, not public interest. Congress should just do its job and provide long-term consistent funding to an air traffic system that was founded on the premise of an infrastructure for everyone, not just commercial aviation.

    On that note, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for Transportation and Housing recently rejected the privatization proposal, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) aptly observing that it “appears to be a solution in search of a problem.” That’s a good start; let’s end this nonsense once and for all.