Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Wed January 27 2016

Who Should Run America's Air Traffic Control System?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 27, 2016

Who Should Run America's Air Traffic Control System?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general shed light on the inefficiencies of America’s current air traffic control system, stating that the amount of money spent on air traffic control operations has doubled over the past 20 years, while productivity has declined significantly. Despite the report's warnings, the FAA seems intent on maintaining the subpar status quo rather than fixing anything. 

Is privatization the answer?

This report has given extra ammunition to those who think that the air traffic control system should be privatized. Bill Shuster, a member of the House of Representatives and chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is expected to introduce a bill that would move control of the ATC from the FAA to a private company. The idea is very simialar to what Canada decided to do. Air traffic control in that country is overseen by a nonprofit company called Nav Canada, which is run by a board of directors which includes a number of industry stakeholders. 

Proponents of this plan say that a private firm would be able to better oversee funding and would create the momentum needed to update practices and systems used by air traffic controllers. These upgrades are something that the FAA has been unwilling or unable to achieve over the past 20 years. 

This new nonprofit would be funded by fees that airlines currently pay to the government for ATC services.

READ MORE: Is the US Running Out of Air Traffic Controllers?

Plenty of opposition

The idea has worked well in Canada, and the U.K. and Germany also have similar firms overseeing their systems. However, the privatization plan has met with significant opposition in the U.S. Two members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, democrats  Elijah Cummings and Eleanor Holmes Norton, announced that they have a petition signed by 130,000 Americans who are opposed to the privatization plan. 

There is even a coalition made up of various consumer groups that is organizing to fight any plan that would shift control of the ATC away from the FAA. Called Americans Against Air Traffic Control Privatization, the group includes advocacy organizations like People Demanding Action. PDA’s executive director, Andrea Miller, said that change it not needed and her group is taking steps “to protect our nation’s air traffic control system, which is the safest in the world.”

She added that any type of privatization would favor airlines at the expense of consumers: “We need a system where consumers come first, not airline executives.”  

READ MORE: Aviation Funding Debate Focus Shifts to Air Traffic Control

Not enough information to make an informed decision

Some opponents in the House are merely worried that the plan will be rushed through with no details shared until the last minute. This is a legitimate concern. An FAA reauthorization bill needs to pass before the current legislation governing the aviation body expires on March 31. 

A group supporting the shift to a nonprofit, Airline for America (A4A), contends that privatization would lead to more air traffic controller jobs and would speed the adoption of NextGen air traffic management systems that are even safer than the current systems. The FAA would still have a role to play. It would be the safety regulator for the ATC industry, but would not have a hand in day-to-day operations. 

The biggest problem seems to be that no one is quite certain how the privatization will play out. One concern, which has kept Delta from joining its peers in support of privatization, is that the focus is shifting away from what many consider the most important goal: adopting NextGen. There is no guarantee that this will happen any faster with a new organization in charge.   


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