On Monday, The Manhattan Mercury published an opinion piece from the Washington Post under the headline, “FAA modernization is essential.” The issue is the migration of the air traffic control system from a ground radar-based system to one using satellite GPS to separate air traffic and put aircraft in landing or departing sequences. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on this upgrade, called NexGen, for about 10 years. It is behind schedule and significantly over budget.
However, the solution is definitely not the privatization of the air traffic control system. The major airlines, minus Delta, have been lobbying Congress and the president to spin off the air traffic control function to a private company guided by an airline-centric board of directors. Why? The airlines want to control access to airports and have their flights receive priority over all other flights. The airline lobby cites NavCanada, a private air traffic control company in Canada, as a model. The U.S. FAA-run air traffic control system is the largest and safest in the world. Canada has one-tenth of the air traffic as the United States. Of the 10 busiest airports in the world, six are in the United States. The Europeans have been trying to copy our system with their Eurocontrol.
Under the airlines’ scheme, a private company would be formed and buy all the FAA air traffic control facilities such as towers, enroute control centers, landing aids and communications sites. Current government controllers would become employees of this company. The company would then charge airlines, general aviation and the military for using the system. A large bureaucracy would have to be created to manage billing.
At present, the air traffic control system is funded by users through passenger ticket taxes, freight waybill taxes and taxes on all general aviation fuel. All of these taxes, like sales taxes, are collected by private entities and remitted to the government. No bureaucracy is needed.
The airline lobby claims that a privatized company would be free of political interference and have a stable funding stream not subject to sequesters and the annual federal budgeting process. But would it?
Let’s look at the only other privatized company doing what was once seen as a government function, the U.S. Postal Service. It was set up as a privatized company to “operate like a business.” However, every rate increase has to be approved by Congress. Business decisions such as eliminating Saturday delivery, are second-guessed by Congress. And Congress has mandated that the Post Office fund employee retirements for 75 years going forward.
FAA reauthorizations have been held up in Congress by senators who have private beefs with the FAA. For instance, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has held up reauthorization because an FAA redesign of arrival routes into LaGuardia Airport in New York irritated some of his constituents. Also, former Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) held up reauthorization over the Essential Air Service being eliminated from three small cities in West Virginia. Does anyone believe that politicians can keep their hands off the privatized air traffic control?
Another significant question is whether the newly privatized air traffic controllers would be allowed to strike. In 1983, striking FAA air traffic controllers were all fired. But if the controllers are no longer in government service, would they again be able to strike? This is a serious question for anyone who travels to France, where controllers strike an average of three times a year, snarling air traffic in Europe for days.
The advances of NexGen can be and will be handled by the FAA, which is well into the implementation stage with many parts of the system already in operation. The air space in the United States belongs to all of the people and should be governed by their representatives in Congress. There is only one reason the airlines are lobbying so hard for this “privatization.” They see it in their self-interest and they want to control it. No other aviation group, whether representing private pilots, business aviation or aircraft manufacturing, is in favor of this change. With any proposal of this magnitude, we should ask qui bono — who benefits? The real losers will be small cities without airline service that depend on general aviation to link them to the rest of the world.
Charles Reagan, 3022 Cherry Hill, holds a commercial pilot license and is a cer-tified flight instructor. He retired after 43 years as a pilot and is a former board member of the National Business Aviation Association.