Written by Felipe A. Rodriguez, MBA, MPA, CM
Aviation, as we all know, is composed of private and public-sector entities, involving airports and airlines.
Whether its airlines consolidating to avoid bankruptcy or the increase of user fees—passenger facility taxes (PFCs) used to repair or build runways, terminals, or used for overall airport development—airlines are always trying to find a way to supplement airport costs.
One of the cost-saving initiatives the government talked about in the past and that has recently resurfaced is the issue of Air Traffic Control Privatization.
An Air Traffic Control (ATC) privatization bill was introduced in June 2017 by Rep. Bill Shuster (R), a representative for Pennsylvania’s 9th congressional district.
The bill is called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, also known as The 21st Century AIRR Act (H.R.2997).
The sole purpose of the bill is, “To transfer operation of air traffic services currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity, to reauthorize programs of the Federal Aviation Administration, and for other purposes.”
Support of the Privatization Bill
The Privatization Bill has some support, while others are against it.
The National Air Traffic Controller Association’s (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi, is one of the biggest supporters of this bill. “After extremely careful review, consideration and deliberation, we have decided to support the bill because it fully aligns with NATCA’s policies, practices, and core principles,” he declared.
This, of course, is a significant endorsement. If the bill were to become a reality, the ATC system would be modified and turned into a non-governmental, non-profit entity.
It would entail a board of directors which would include representatives from airlines, regulators, and consumer advocates; meaning that the antiquated technology that is currently used would be updated with technology such as a Global Positioning System (GPS).
Should GPS be used in favor of the current radar system, the overall ATC infrastructure would be far more efficient, bringing numerous advantages to both controllers and aircraft operators.
Other entities who have tried Privatization
Other countries have privatized their ATC infrastructure. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland are some of the most prominent and successful models.
The problem with privatized ATC is that, in those countries, user fees have seen a significant increase.
For example, Canada had user fees increased to help support the ATC system.
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Delta Air Lines conducted an independent study showing that if the ATC system in the US were to be privatized, there would be an increase of about 20-30% in fees that would be ultimately paid by passengers when booking their tickets.
Many theories come into play, and of course when benchmarking other countries that already have this proposed system in place, a “privatized system” concern comes to mind.
Entities that are against Privatization
Another perspective on the privatization issue comes from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), an organization that is vividly against it.
AOPA, who represents and looks out for the interest of General Aviation pilots in the United States, claims that a privatized ATC would be run by a board of directors, led by airline executives. Such a situation would, inherently, prioritize airline matters and leave general aviation on the back scene.
Impact on smaller communities
The other concern is what would happen to General Aviation airports and rural communities that do not have reliable and constant air service.
Against-privatization parties claim that smaller communities will suffer from lack of service of mainline carriers, arguing that routes to/from those destinations will be too expensive to operate.
This was stated previously by the Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elain Chao, who confirmed and admitted that the oversight board that would control the system would favor the interest of larger airports instead.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, interviewed last year with Katie Couric and stated, “In most countries, it’s either too restrictive or too expensive for an average person to fly, and the only way you can go is on an airliner or a military flight.”
“It’s just prohibitively restrictive or expensive to do it any other way. That’s something that we need to protect and preserve, and so why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines? Because they definitely have their own agenda to lower their costs,” he said.
To privatize or not?
Privatization is a complicated matter. It’s useful to benchmark other countries that have this system in place to review and evaluate; to look at its advantages and disadvantages. However, the question is, who controls the system?
As mentioned earlier, the White House supports the Privatization bill as do many Americans along with bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle.
What Congress needs to do is to create a balanced format of the board. Who would have control and make the final decisions?
I agree with Sully not to give too much power or control to the airlines, but I do agree with NATCA that it is an antiquated system that needs to be updated to today’s technological standards.
Currently, Rep. Shuster’s Privatization Bill (H.R. 2997) is awaiting passage by the House, the Senate, then onto the President’s desk for signing.
I am confident there will be more modifications to the bill. We have the safest and most efficient ATC system in the world.
Regardless of cost or politics, the safety of flying passengers should never be compromised.
So, to the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and the President: the people of the United States are standing by for clearance.