Letter: Facts and Fictions about Privatized Air Traffic Control
December 18, 2015
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  • A recent Crain’s New York Business opinion piece, authored by several executives with some of the big airlines serving the New York area, offered a case study in irony, or perhaps amnesia, about the realities concerning a certain privatized aviation system, versus America’s system.

    The airline executives pointed to a privatized air traffic control (ATC) system, NATS UK, which provided a governing-stakeholder interest to the airlines when it was formed several years ago, as an operating model for the United States to emulate.

    First, unless anyone has forgotten, a seminal moment in the history of that privatized system came when the supposedly “stable and predicable funding stream” that would be generated by its user fees proved to be so volatile that NATS UK needed a massive bailout from the government and taxpayers.

    In the years since the bailout, the facts about how NATS UK has fared provide more than enough reason to question whether that country’s privatized model has been all its proponents have claimed it to be. Let’s look, then, at some of those facts.

    Consider a report published this year by the UK’s own Airports Commission, which states that the system is “showing unambiguous signs of strain,” producing “more delays, higher fares and reduced connectivity” at London’s airports.

    Of course, the impact of the situation isn’t limited to London. “Another important consequence,” the Commission goes on to observe, “is the decline of domestic services from other areas of the UK, particularly the North of England and Scotland, into the largest London airports, impacting the growth of their economies.”

    And how does this snapshot of the UK’s privatized ATC system, featuring a financial bailout, increased delays, higher fares, reduced connectivity and diminished domestic service, compare with the situation in the U.S., including the portion of its aviation system involving the New York area?

    Again, let’s look at the facts: the U.S. manages nearly 20% of the world’s airspace, including some of the most complex, densely traveled airspace anywhere. In the New York area alone, the region’s three commercial airports handle 20% more flights each day than London’s five commercial airports.

    Equally important, the aviation traffic in the New York area (as is often the case elsewhere in the U.S.) consists of a much greater diversity of flights by the commercial airlines, business aviation, recreational flyers, flight training and public-benefit flying than what you’d find in the London area.

    What this means is that, even under the rosiest-case scenario, the lessons of UK NATS can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be applied broadly to the U.S. system, which is the world’s largest, safest, most efficient, most diverse, most complex and most capable of serving a host of diverse, but equally important interests. It’s a system with a governance model focused on serving the public benefit; not the business benefits of one aviation constituency.

    As we work to continue modernizing the U.S. system, it is fair to acknowledge that the status quo is unacceptable, and that improvements are needed. But it’s equally important to recognize that when surveyed, Americans by a two-to-one majority have opposed privatized ATC systems. Last but not least, it’s critical that discussions about modernization are based on facts, and on fixing what is broken. Everything else is a just a distraction from that imperative.

    Steve Brown is the Chief Operating Officer at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). From 1998–2004, Steve Brown served as vice president of operations planning with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His various responsibilities with the FAA, have included managing the nation’s 35,000 air traffic controllers, maintenance and software technicians, flight inspection pilots and administrative personnel responsible for the day-to-day operation of the nation’s airspace systems.