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Guess What Happened When The UK Privatized Their ATC System
August 26, 2017
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  • Last month Congressman Bill Shuster’s convoluted plan to supposedly “privatize” the nation’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system hit a major snag when it failed to clear the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for transportation and housing. On a voice vote they approved funding for the FAA covering the next fiscal year without including any mention of the privatization plan. That turned out to be a good thing because a few weeks later it was discovered that the original cost estimates for implementing the plan were off by billions of dollars (in the wrong direction).

    The issue isn’t entirely dead, however, because the House and Senate still have to reconcile their differences on the spending bill and President Trump (who unfortunately backs this scheme) will exert influence as well. All sorts of mischief can take place in the final days when Congress begins patching together a behemoth spending bill such as this and the ATC spinoff plan could still rear its head again.

    Just in case anyone in Congress is thinking of agreeing to the proposal as a bargaining chip, they may want to take a look at what happened across the pond in the UK after they privatized their own Air Traffic Control system. Aero News released a summary of the results and to put it mildly… it didn’t go well. They saw changes in both performance and costs, but officials there are describing, “increasing delays, widespread technical glitches, mass-strandings, and resulting in calls for modernization and a potential government bailout.”

    For instance, The Standard earlier this month carried a headline reading “The UK’s Air Traffic Control System is In “Meltdown” and Getting Worse”. According to the story, since turning over the UK’s air traffic control system to a private entity, the UK’s privatized air traffic control system has had near-constant problems, including widespread delays, technical outages, and stranded passengers – and this summer is no different. For example, a glitch in British Airways IT systems recently resulted in “total chaos” at Heathrow airport in London.

     According to a recent article in The Independent, “this year is typical: British Airways’ cabin crew have decided to strike and their IT systems failed again this week (the seventh time this year), causing check-in chaos. Air traffic control (Nats) is in meltdown, short-staffed and unable to cope.” (The Independent, Aug. 4, 2017)

    The news doesn’t get much better from there. UK officials recorded flight delays 14 times higher in 2016 than same period in 2015. In June the BBC proclaimed that the privatized system was now in dire need of modernization and a government bailout. Now, I don’t know how they organize their priorities in the UK, but privatization efforts in the United States are generally being billed as a way to accomplish modernization and reduced costs, making the system more efficient and cost effective. When they tried it in England it seems to have gone in the opposite direction on both scores.

    We can’t look at that example in a vacuum of course. It’s a massively complex system with a lot of moving parts and challenges which are unique to that industry. But it should at least serve as a cautionary tale. The proposal currently under consideration in our own Congress clearly doesn’t have a grip on what the costs will be and few specifics have been offered as to how the technical challenges of modernization will be accomplished while simultaneously reducing costs to both the taxpayers and air travel consumers. Our ATC system clearly has plenty of room for improvement, but rushing into this transformation blindly seems like a fool’s errand at this point. The plan should die in committee and stay there until a new, better defined plan can be put forward.