The push for privatization of the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun again. As we discuss this course of action, national security must be a top consideration.
As someone who has spent nearly 35 years in law enforcement, including serving as director of the U.S. Secret Service, I think there are several key law enforcement and national security questions that have been overlooked and need to be considered as we discuss the merits of bringing private entities into the air traffic control governance structure.
First is a threshold, philosophical question: if an entity with private interests in its leadership takes over air traffic control management, will the bottom-line considerations be prioritized? Investments in Next Generation (NextGen) modernization, a multibillion-dollar air traffic upgrade initiated in 2012, are underway and will only continue to enhance the capabilities of air traffic control.
The communications and geopositioning upgrades associated with NextGen stand to improve the security of our air traffic system through more accurate data exchange. If a private entity begins to oversee these upgrades, it is questionable whether it will place public safety first and its finances second.
Air traffic controllers are subject to rigorous background security investigations as a condition of employment. These investigations ensure that the individual has no criminal record, is not affiliated with criminal or terrorist organizations or has other issues that would indicate a lack of trustworthiness or character.
These background investigations also ensure that the air traffic controller is able to operate effectively and calmly in high pressure situations. Background investigations are not a one-time requirement, are costly, and continue routinely through the course of an air traffic controller’s career.
Currently, these investigations are undertaken by experienced federal investigators. They can be time and resource consuming, but are well worth it, especially given the current world environment and the threat to aviation. If air traffic control functions are privatized, will this critical function continue to be in the capable hands of federal investigators? This is a critical area where we cannot afford to cut corners.
It is not yet clear how the FAA and this new privatized organization would develop or structure aviation standards or approvals of new regulations — all of which form a coordinated approach to passenger and general aviation security.
For example, a unified and uniformed FAA was integral in coordinating multi-layered and integrated air defense plans and securing airspace during high-profile events like presidential inaugurations, political conventions, other national special security events, and whenever Air Force One traversed the country.
Throughout my career, I observed — and Secret Service protectees benefited from — an inherent partnership, standardized air traffic control and cooperation between the FAA and other federal entities like the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.
I believe strongly in the wisdom that can be gained from the private sector. Privatization of the air traffic control, however, would pose a multitude of chain of command issues, differing priorities, and perspectives that could potentially elevate risk and interfere with the end goal of ensuring aviation security.
Mark Sullivan was director of the U.S. Secret Service from 2006 to 2013.