Guest Column: Don’t Privatize Air Traffic Control
February 8, 2018
  • Share
  • It’s hard to fathom the Washington, D.C., interest in privately contracting the nation’s air traffic control system, operated publicly by the Federal Aviation Administration. Any pilot who flies internationally understands that the system is the envy of the world. It works incredibly well as it is; please don’t fix it.

    A rigorous air traffic control system provides us with very safe airspace in the United States. Pilots have confidence in the system, and they understand full well that lapses in judgment or procedure will be dealt with directly and effectively by controllers.

    I know; I got in a spot of trouble with them as a young pilot, and within a day, I was ordered to seek additional training about my responsibilities as a pilot in a busy, urban airspace. FAA-ATC professionals are very effective “air police.” It’s hard to imagine how a private contractor could fill that function. Rent-a-Cop, contracted enforcement rarely works; as a pilot, I don’t want a rent-a-cop writing me traffic tickets.

    The FAA-ATC is closely aligned with our Defense Department, providing eyes and ears over every square mile of domestic airspace, a vital element of domestic national security. Under a private contractor, that relationship would necessarily be diminished. Here again, why would we risk losing this effective, proven national security partnership?

    Last year, I flew my plane around the world. I went through Canada (not bad air traffic control, but not as good as ours), Greenland, The United Kingdom, Western Europe, Russia and home. The systems outside of the United States are cumbersome, clunky and expensive to use — and they are largely run by private contractors. They don’t provide the direct style routing that we have become accustomed to in the United States. They are regimented, inflexible and inefficient.

    Recently, the FAA made a comparative study of American vs. European air traffic systems. It’s a dense document, but the upshot is that the complexity of air traffic organizations results in a significantly less efficient delivery of air traffic services — and to commercial travelers, that means delays and traffic hassles.

    They’ve tried contracting air traffic control in the U.K. and Canada, and both countries had to go back and bail out the contractors through massive fee increases on travelers and from taxpayers. And a U.S. Government Accountability Office report raised issues and doubts about such a massive, complex transition, probably the most important of which is how the highly skilled ATC staff would be split between the public agency and the new private organization.

    There is nothing to envy about the European air traffic system. The United States has fewer air traffic controllers managing many more types of aircraft, from commercial to private to military. A fourth of their traffic delays are caused by traffic volume, as compared with 3 percent here. Our system handles more traffic, with far less delays, for less money.

    This is a horrible idea. It would provide perceived benefits to one industry — the commercial airlines (I think it will hurt them, too!) — to the complete detriment of general aviation (everyone else).

    It’s a solution in search of a problem. The American air traffic control system works incredibly well; it isn’t broken; do us all a favor, please don’t fix it.

    — Doug King is the CEO of Epic Aircraft, a Bend-based business.