The big commercial airlines are at it again, pushing for a proposal to privatize air traffic control by taking away Congressional oversight over our air traffic control system and put it under the control of a private board that would be accountable to commercial interests, instead of the general public. We have already seen what happens when airline decisions are driven by the bottom line – there has been a 20% cut in routes to smaller markets, seat space has shrunk to inhumane levels, and fees have risen to $6.8 billion last year alone. Under a privatized system, airlines would have free reign to cut routes, disregard customer complaints, and raise fees and taxes to outrageous levels.
The Airlines Are Pushing for “Privatization” to Gain More Control Over Air Traffic Control
- For example, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly once again made the push to privatize air traffic control, this time fully admitting that the motivation for his push was to get more control over the air traffic control system. Specifically, he stated, “well, we’re not in control. And I think that’s one of the things that we see as the path to having success, is we need to address the fundamental organization of the air traffic organization.” In addition, Kelly continued to highlight the airlines’ desire for control and management of the air traffic control system, saying, “we want the government out of managing the air traffic control system.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/09/remarks-president-trump-meeting-aviation-industry
Privatization would allow the airlines to collude and engage in anti-competitive behavior.
- According to DOT numbers from November 2015 to October 2016, just 4 airlines control 69% of the domestic market. (http://www.transtats.bts.gov)
- Over 20,000 passenger complaints about airline service were filled with the DOT in 2015. (https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/dot014_16)
- In 2015, the US airlines collected $6.8 billion in fees for baggage and reservation cancellation/change on domestic flights. (https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/subject_areas/airline_information/index.html).
- Privatization of air traffic control would be a virtual blank check to the airlines for collusion and abuse of competition, such as limiting competitors’ access to runways, manipulating the flow of air traffic, charging endless new fees and charges, and shutting competitors out from certain airports or communities.
Privatization Would Not Alleviate Delays or Costs
- The biggest contributor to delays is NOT air traffic control, even though the airlines have been pushing this false narrative to try to justify their risky, unpopular privatization scheme. Aviation expert Michael Baiada noted “Instead of focusing on privatization, the question Congress and the GAO should be asking first is what causes delays. Unfortunately, the ATC system is too often the scapegoat for the airline’s problems.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryncreedy/2015/11/24/your-money-atc-privatization-unlikely-to-mitigate-delays-and-cancellations/)
- According to data from the Department of Transportation, in 2015 the airlines were responsible for 323,454 flight delays. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-23/blame-the-airlines-not-the-weather-for-most-u-s-flight-delays)
- In addition, as Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) recently highlighted, “data from the Department of Transportation and reported by Bloomberg reveals airline problems, including technical glitches and mechanical failures, as the leading cause of airline delays, surpassing weather and air-traffic control problems.” (http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-and-blumenthal-statement-on-new-data-that-reveals-airline-caused-factors-biggest-cause-of-flight-delays)
- And, according an analysis by industry consultant Bob Mann “the current FAA-run system costs $2.07 per mile, 8 cents cheaper than Nav Canada charges.” (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-11/should-the-u-s-privatize-air-traffic-control-)
- Last, while proponents of privatization continue to cite Canada and the UK as systems we should emulate, the UK’s NATS system required a bailout of £130 million—£65 million taken from taxpayer subsidies, and another £65 million in airline contributions through fare increases. (http://www.aero-news.net/index.cfm?do=main.textpost&id=f06d64ad-e065-48e4-aba2-5e762302259e), and the Canadian system had to adjust fees several times several times to adjust to funding shortfalls.
Rural communities, agriculture, general aviation and small businesses would lose the most under Privatization
- For example, according to GAO, “approximately 1.2 million scheduled domestic flights were eliminated from 2007 through 2013 at large-, medium-, and small-hub, and nonhub airports. Scheduled departures at medium-hub airports decreased nearly 24 percent between 2007 and 2013… about 20 percent at small-hub airports over the same time period.” (http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664060.pdf)
- And, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes has stated that they intend to use the power they gain from privatization to invest where it is most profitable for the airlines. “We also need to direct infrastructure improvements into the regions of the country where they’ll produce the most benefits, like the Northeast Corridor. The pace of change really needs to accelerate, especially in New York, which is the busiest air travel market in the country and has the most to gain from NextGen improvements.” (http://iacwashington.org/speech-text/)
- In addition, under this type of structure, the airlines would have the ability implement a host of new fees and taxes, which would decimate general aviation and the businesses and communities that rely on them with new user fees.
There are serious security concerns with privatization
- According to the U.S. Department of Defense Policy Board on Federal Aviation, relieving the Federal Aviation Administration of its role in managing the nation’s air traffic control system by creating a separate ATC organization “raises serious concerns.” Any such proposal by Congress must address “shared infrastructure” with the military, adds the DOD Policy Board on Federal Aviation (PBFA). https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2017-01-29/creating-atc-corporation-raises-concerns-pentagon-says
- According to the GAO, privatizing air traffic control would create problems with how the FAA and Department of Defense cooperate on air system security. “It is unclear if established air defense procedures could be assumed by a non-governmental organization.” (http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/680439.pdf)
- Another GAO report raised questions about how easily safety roles and responsibilities could be split between a privatized ATC entity and the FAA as the safety regulator. Specifically, it looked at issues of coordination, problems developing and implementing new ATC procedures and flight standards, and challenges of two organizations competing for the same highly skilled staff. “…other safety roles and responsibilities may not easily be split between the safety regulator and ATC entity.” (http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/675079.pdf)
- We should not trust the airlines to manage the air traffic control system when they can’t manage their own internal systems and secure against cybersecurity threats. For example, in the past 2 years, there have been 21 major disruptions to airline operations due to technological failures. (http://qz.com/535967/tech-glitches-keep-plaguing-us-airlines-this-dashboard-keeps-track-of-them-all/).
- According to Computer Economics, “U.S. and Canadian airlines are projected to spend an average of 3 percent of their revenue on information technology this year – compared to 8 percent by commercial banks and 4 percent by healthcare firms.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-delta-air-outages-it-analysis-idUSKCN10N1A3)
- According to Fast Company, it’s likely that hackers already probe aviation systems looking for vulnerabilities. And security experts believe it is only a matter of time before cyberattacks “lead to something far more dangerous than a canceled flight or long check-in queue.” (https://www.fastcompany.com/3063252/mind-and-machine/as-airlines-digitize-they-are-confronted-with-increased-cybersecurity-risks)
There is no evidence that privatization would help to more quickly deploy NextGen and the CBO estimates that privatization would add to our national deficit
- In a letter to Senator Thune, the FAA reported that they were on track to meet its “original high-level air traffic management objectives for NextGen by 2025.” NextGen changes have already “produced tangiable benefits for airlines, pilots, and other users” – in 2016 “our multi-faceted airspace improvements already have translated into $2.72 billion in savings in passenger time and occupant safety, as well as reduced fuel and aircraft operating costs.” (http://www.cargoair.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/FAA-Response-to-Thune-NextGen-Letter-12-16.pdf)
- In addition, the Congressional Budget Office CBO estimates that enacting H.R. 4441 would increase net direct spending by $89 billion over the 2017-2026 period and increase net deficits stemming from revenues and direct spending by about $19.8 billion over the 2017-2026 period. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/51362
The Public Wants the FAA to Stay in Control of the Air Traffic Control System
- Recently, a poll was released showing that a full 62 percent of voters oppose privatizing the air traffic control function of the FAA and turning it over to a private, non-profit entity, while only 26 percent support it.
- The poll, conducted by Global Strategies Group and released by the Alliance for Aviation Across America, the Air Care Alliance and the League of Rural Voters, also showed that 88% of voters say the FAA does an excellent or good job. Opposition was also consistent across all demographics, with 60% opposition among men, 63% among women; an, 75% of self-identified Democrats, 54% of independents, and 51% of Republicans opposed. Among those who reported voting for Hillary Clinton in the last election, 76% oppose it, and Trump voters oppose by 49%, with 39% who support it. The sampling margin of error on the survey is +/-3.5% at the 95% confidence level. https://www.aviationacrossamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/national-aviation-issues-survey-memo.pdf
Our FAA must retain oversight of the nation’s air traffic control system, so that our national aviation system continues to serve consumers and communities of all sizes.