Why U.S. Air Traffic Control Should Not Be Privatized
January 24, 2018
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  • Your recent editorial (“14,417 flight delays in Arizona prove the FAA is broken,” Jan. 18) missed some key points about privatization of air traffic control.

    Proponents of privatization have promised the moon, but when you actually look at the cause of airline delays, you find that the airline’s internal production process is the problem (see “NAS Congestion — Who’s to Blame?”, Journal of Air Traffic Control, Winter 2017). Airline delays are just that — airline delays.

    The fact remains that only the airlines, using real time, active management of their internal “day-of” operations (aircraft, gates, people, etc.) can reduce airline delays. ATC is not broken, and ATC can never fix airlines delays.

    For example, using Business Based Flow Management (BBFM), airlines could speed up the two aircraft at the front of a tightly packed arrival queue of 30 aircraft in real time (two to three hours prior to landing), thus pulling the entire arrival queue forward. In other words, moving two aircraft forward at the front end of a large arrival queue in real time doesn’t just save two minutes, but saves two minutes for every aircraft in the queue behind the first two flights, as the entire queue moves forward. This creates what Professor John-Paul Clarke of Georgia Tech labeled the “draft effect,” thus dropping 60 minutes of flight time and delay from this one arrival queue alone.

    Conversely, privatization will not change much concerning airline delays, but will provide airlines more control over the ATC system by removing key congressional oversight that ensures that the system works to benefit the public. This would give airlines the ability to continue the false narrative that ATC is the problem, spending even more billions chasing yet another ATC solution that will not work.

    Also, what airlines don’t seem to realize, or maybe they do, is that privatization would turn full “day of” control of the airlines primary production assets (aircraft) to the ATC system. In what business model is having a government or quasi-government agency run your daily production process a good thing?

    This air traffic control privatization debate is unfortunately political gamesmanship at its worst — a side-show aimed at shifting attention from the airline’s huge number of internal daily defects, driven by their refusal to track and manage their aircraft and customers.

    Let’s get real and start holding the airlines accountable for managing their own internal “day of” operations, just like every other industry, as opposed to handing them the keys to a $30 billion to $50 billion piece of our public infrastructure.

    Finally, the fact is that the flow management tools are readily available, relatively inexpensive, operationally validated and independently verified to improve on-time performance, while reducing fuel burn, airspace complexity and flight time. The question, then, is which airline system will provide the vision and leadership to Toyota-ize the airline industry?