EDITORIAL: A Risky Option
February 21, 2017
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  • A proposal to privatize the United States’ air traffic control system has surfaced again, this time when industry executives met with President Trump earlier this month.

    Last year, GOP Congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced a bill that would have dismantled the air traffic control system and turned its functions and responsibilities over to a private, nonprofit corporation. This corporation would be run by airline industry representatives and some former Federal Aviation Administration employees.

    That bill was eventually defeated, with Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democratic member on the transportation committee, leading the charge. But the FAA was funded only for another 15 months, until early this fall.

    Trump told airline executives two weeks ago that he is interested in privatizing the air traffic control system, which industry executives argue needs to be privatized in order to be modernized.

    The United States’ air traffic control system is the largest and most complex in the world, with an enviable record for safety. On average, more than 2 million passengers per day board planes in the United States, the vast majority on domestic flights, according to the federal Department of Transportation.

    The biggest concerns for most of those passengers will be a shortage of leg room and whether they’ll be able to snag space in an overhead storage bin. They take for granted that the plane will take off and land safely, which is a tribute to the air traffic control system’s record.

    The FAA also plays a key role in keeping America safe from the threat of terrorism, in partnership with the Department of Defense — a function that has grown in importance since Sept. 11, 2001.

    This is not a system to be discarded lightly or turned over to private interests without an assurance that the prosperity and security of the United States would be as well-served under private management as it has been under public.

    The airline industry’s track record after it was mostly deregulated does not inspire confidence in that assumption. Despite assurances that airline deregulation would lead to better service at lower cost to consumers, it resulted in fewer routes, rising consumer costs — including an array of new fees for everything from checked baggage to food — a spate of airline bankruptcies and a rising tide of consumer complaints.

    In opposing Shuster’s proposal last year, DeFazio argued that privatization would “tear apart aviation programs, risk unnecessary duplication and complexity, and ultimately cost money for taxpayers and travelers.”

    The new corporation that would be set up to run air traffic would also have the ability to dole out favors to some airlines, such as better schedules and routes, at the expense of others. This is particularly problematic given that airline executives would sit on the board of the air traffic control corporation.

    The FAA has been moving toward the modernization that industry executives cite as a reason to replace the air traffic control system, while also fulfilling its daily obligations to maintain safety, enforce minimum standards for aircraft manufacturing and maintenance, and oversee research on ways to improve air travel.

    Any move to dismantle the existing system for a new, untried system with the potential for massive conflicts of interest should be firmly squashed.