Air traffic control privatization could affect security and safety at our borders
August 23, 2017
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  • I have watched with interest the recent debate about air traffic control privatization and am concerned about the implications of privatization on our law enforcement and border efforts. Throughout my 35-year law enforcement career and as the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and the national chief of the Border Patrol, I have seen every type of adversary and threat against our nation, and I can tell you this for sure — these types of threats wait for no one. Law enforcement officers work around the clock to diligently combat threats ranging from hurricanes and other natural events to crime and acts of terrorism. On Dec. 25, 2009, our Customs and Border Protection officers were first responders to the bomber attempting to blow up a U.S. airliner. Our law enforcement officers were also crucial to a coordinated response during Hurricanes Katrina in Louisiana and Sandy in the Northeast. The list goes on and on.

    A robust transportation infrastructure, overseen by our federal government, is necessary and vital to our nation’s safety and security. We have over 6,000 miles of border to protect, territory that is extremely remote, often in areas without roads and over rough terrain. The strength and agility of our law enforcement and Homeland Security agencies to protect our borders are only as good as the transportation infrastructure that is available to them. Our nation’s aviation infrastructure is a vital part of it. Thousands of small aircraft and airports of all sizes make aviation and emergency response accessibility consistent across our country, allowing our law enforcement officers accessibility and the ability to counter criminal or harmful activities, survey the landscape, carry out searches, monitor for suspicious activity, and facilitate law enforcement’s delivery of services and goods.

    The scale and size of America’s nonurban landscape make law enforcement uniquely reliant on smaller airports. In my former positions, I saw first-hand the importance of general aviation to our nation’s protective abilities. Every year, with increasing frequency, our nation is experiencing ravaging wildfires, flooding, and other natural occurrences where these airports, helicopters and other small aircraft have been lifeline hubs to first responder supply chains necessary to protect lives, property, and the environment. Whether its monitoring drug trafficking or facilitating supply of food and water after a natural disaster, the general aviation network that crisscrosses our nation is fundamental to our law enforcement’s ability to keep Americans and our nation safe.

    As debate over air traffic control privatization and moving controllers to an independent, nongovernmental organization continues in the halls of Congress, it is important to consider the potential safety and security ramifications of such a move. First, a privatized or public-private air traffic control means that our network of FAA assets and facilities are no longer overseen and budgeted for by the federal government, a risky proposition for our nation’s law enforcement. Commercial airlines—like those that are proposed to sit on the privatized entity’s board — have gone on record indicating they would allocate resources where the greatest profit can be found. These “profitable” airspaces are unsurprisingly the most populated. Profits are a powerful driving force in our market economy, but our adversaries look to take advantage of any perceived infrastructure weaknesses. We must invest in our security consistently. Threats and security challenges do not target populated, urban areas alone.

    While commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, I oversaw a budget of over $12 billion. I understand the constant cost-benefit assessments an organization must make to meet budgets and execute mission-critical programs. National security, emergency response and recovery capability, however, call for substantial investment and the commitment of the federal government, the same as with our national defense. We cannot be shy about funding those foundational mechanisms that ensure our safety and allow our way of life to continue. We cannot put our law enforcement organizations and communities at risk for the sake of profitability.

    David Aguilar previously led the United States’ largest law enforcement agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as commissioner and deputy commissioner of the organization. Mr. Aguilar was appointed by President George W. Bush as the national chief of the U.S. Border Patrol and prior to that, served as chief of the Tucson sector.