Whether to Privatize Air Traffic Control a Foolish Debate
March 10, 2016
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  • Anyone who is involved in any aspect of air travel may know that there is a recent and heavy push by some to privatize the U.S. Air Traffic Control system. As an analyst who has studied air traffic control, aircraft flows and logistics issues for years, I believe that there are critical questions that must first be answered before we undergo any substantial or transformative change to our air traffic control system.

    First, I should mention that I am not for or against privatization. But before we spend billions trying to fix the system, we need to define the problem and know the goal. Is the goal to fix our issues with congestion and delays? If so, we are embarking on a fool’s errand that will bring us no closer to fixing the actual problem.

    Consider the fact that the airlines themselves are responsible for most airline delays, and that these delays have nothing to do with the air traffic control system. Also consider that there are no full cost estimates for what it would take to transition to a privatized air traffic control system. And consider that no one has asked this question: Why shouldn’t airlines spend their dollars to fix their internal operational morass before asking taxpayers to spend billions of dollars?

    To really fix the issues of airline delays, we need to understand the scope of the problem.

    While we do need to modernize our system and alleviate travel delays, it is important to understand that these are two separate problems. Further, the issue is not that our system is so overloaded and congested that we are unable to manage it, given that the entire U.S. air traffic control system is run on a computer network smaller than those owned by most companies. The system normally deals with 5,000 to 10,000 aircraft at any given time. In the whole world, given the different time zones, there are usually no more than 10,000 to 15,000 aircraft flying at the same time.

    Yet astonishingly, even with all this talk about reducing delays and making our system more efficient, airlines do not currently track or manage their own aircraft. As a former pilot, I can tell you, once the aircraft has left the gate, the airlines unnecessarily abdicate control of their aircraft to the air traffic control system, telling controllers to work harder, do better and spend billions of taxpayer dollars to manage the airline’s aircraft and customers.

    Of course, aircraft separation must remain the responsibility of the air traffic control system, but in terms of managing the aircraft’s landing time, adjusting speed and sequencing flights to keep them on-time and efficient, that is up to the individual airlines to determine what they want each of their aircraft to do. Unfortunately for passengers, airlines do not currently manage this process at all.

    The long-story-short is this: In terms of delays and increasing efficiency in our air traffic control system, the primary stakeholders—the ones that should be managing this problem—are the commercial airlines. With today’s budget problems and push for “smaller government,” why should the government spend billions sequencing aircraft, something airlines can do for millions?

    Finally, privatization will not solve the issue of keeping flights managed and running on-time. And before we rush off suggesting solutions, we must clearly understand the problem as to the real cause of airline delays.

    Michael Baiada is the president of ATH Group, a consultancy that works with airlines. He is a former United Airlines pilot.