President Trump is kicking off his infrastructure program by focusing on the nation’s air traffic control system, asserting that, instead of maintaining the ATC system within the Federal Aviation Administration, the system should be placed into private hands. Proponents for privatization, however, shroud their arguments in misleading information and bad public policy.
Proponents of privatization persist in characterizing the air traffic control system as crying for modernization, claiming that the ATC system is “stuck in 1940s technology,” referring to the network of radar systems used by the FAA to monitor aircraft traffic, and that the nation needs to transition to a satellite-based system known as the global positioning system, or GPS. This will come as a surprise to the thousands of aircraft operators who are already using GPS for point-to-point navigation.
The FAA has been making steady progress toward implementing the transition to a completely satellite-based system known as NextGen (for Next Generation Air Traffic Management System) and the FAA has already documented thousands of GPS-based approach and departure processes. Further, privatization of the modernization effort has already largely taken place: many private firms such as Boeing, Airbus, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin are already developing the tools and technologies needed for a fully modernized ATC system.
If the airlines are not taking advantage of the existing GPS system to fly more direct routes, one of their stated goals, it is not the fault of the FAA or its structure. More likely, it is the airlines that have failed to install the equipment needed to employ GPS technologies who bear the responsibility for their being “stuck in 1940s technology.”
Proponents of privatization claim that financing the evolution and future operation of ATC services require the implementation of user fees. Proponents of user fees ignore the immense cost of implementing an entirely new user fee recognition, payment, and reconciliation infrastructure.
The Government Accountability Office reported that “non-commercial general aviation flights often use minimal ATC services and that it may be difficult to track their use. Moreover, these users may have minimal ability to pay, so much so that significant charges might substantially curtail their use of the system” (GAO-16-386R Potential Air Traffic Control Transition Issues). Further, the premise that only the direct users of ATC services (e.g., individual aircraft) benefit from them, which is the policy-based justification for user fees, is fundamentally flawed. The fuel tax already serves as an effective surrogate for user activity and therefore costs: larger aircraft that carry more passengers and have therefore received the greatest benefits of ATC service (e.g., airliners) use more fuel, aircraft that fly more often use more fuel. The cost of ATC operations is thus distributed equitably.
Privatization advocates leave out important facts when arguing for a privatized governance model dominated by the airlines, immune from congressional oversight. First, members of Congress have already noted monopolistic behavior by airlines. In the privatized system being considered, airlines will have even more influence how ATC services are provided. Without congressional oversight, a private board could easily impose user fees in a discriminatory manner.
Second, none of the countries that are referred to as models for ATC privatization have been able to develop and implement systems as large and complex as NextGen. Privatization proponents often point to Europe’s ATC system as a successful model for privatization. Yet, Europe’s airports are among the world’s most congested.
No evidence exists that suggests that reorganizing the FAA and changing the way that the FAA and ATC are funded would improve the system. Adopting changes in procurement regulations and allowing expanded outsourcing both have potential, but these do not require ATC privatization. Finally, based on experience in other countries in which ATC services have been privatized, airlines receive preferential treatment during peak times, reducing the ability of general aviation operators to enter busy airspace, even if they are not landing at the busiest commercial airports.
The United States already has the largest, safest, and most efficient system for managing air traffic in the world. Delays are not caused by problems in the air. The real problem of airport congestion is the inability to add new airports and runways, resulting in demand for takeoff and landing slots that outstrips supply during the busiest periods, combined with a lack of investment in high speed rail transportation.
Removing the air traffic control system from the FAA will only serve the airlines’ financial interests while doing nothing to address the root causes of air travel congestion.