After decades of debate and failed attempts at reform, an effort to transform the country’s air traffic control system — which handles nearly 44,000 daily flights — is facing the most favorable conditions for takeoff it’s had in years.
A proposal that would spin off the federally-managed air traffic control system into a private, not-for-profit corporation is working its way through the House of Representatives, with a vote possible as early as this week.
The plan is widely supported by commercial airlines, including American Airlines and Southwest, who argue changing management is key to speeding up the modernization of the system’s aging infrastructure, which in turn can improve efficiency and reduce traffic congestion as more and more people take to the skies each year.
It’s also got key backers in President Donald Trump, who made privatizing the “broken” air traffic control system a central part of his infrastructure proposal unveiled last month, and Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster, who’s championed the bill as chairman of the House transportation committee.
But passage of the proposal is far from certain, with critics warning that it would concentrate too much power in the hands of the airlines and Democrats worried about privatizing a major piece of government infrastructure.
As the debate heats up, here’s what to know about the current air traffic system, why airlines want to privatize it and why critics are urging caution:
Air traffic control today
At any given time, there are as many as 5,000 aircraft navigating the skies over the United States with the help of some of the Federal Aviation Authority’s 14,000 air traffic controllers.
The airspace is the most complex and most trafficked in the world. Thanks to the air traffic control system, it’s also widely considered to be the safest.
But critics say it’s not the most efficient, especially when it comes to deploying new technologies needed to modernize the system.
The FAA launched a major, multi-billion dollar modernization effort known as NextGen in 2007.
One of the biggest changes in that program is a shift from ground-based radar to satellite-based systems that provide more accurate tracking of aircraft. Other changes would provide better weather data and simplify communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.
Together, the technologies are meant to improve safety while also allowing better management of air traffic to help reduce congestion, in turn driving down passenger delays and lowering fuel costs for airlines.
But progress has been slower than airlines would like — hampered in part by bureaucratic procurement processes and a lack of stable long-term funding — and could take more than a decade to fully complete.
A push to privatize
Reform proponents see privatization as a way to free the air traffic control system from Congressional gridlock and establish a more stable funding stream based on user fees rather than the current mix of taxes on passenger tickets, fuel, cargo and more.
It’s a model that has been used successfully around the world, including in Canada, but never for an air traffic system as large as in the U.S.
Shuster’s bill would establish a corporation overseen by a board of 13 directors chosen with input from commercial, regional and cargo airlines, general and business aviation interests, and unions representing air traffic controllers and pilots.
CEOs for both American and Southwest have spoken out in favor of air traffic control reform, with Southwest’s Gary Kelly calling it the “single biggest opportunity for aviation.” They’re joined by leading aviation industry groups, airline employee unions and the union representing air traffic controllers, which said Shuster’s proposal “protects our workforce.”
Delta Air Lines had long been a major holdout, arguing that privatization threatened to disrupt progress that was already being made to improve the existing system. But on Thursday, the Atlanta-based carrier’s CEO Ed Bastian said the company is working with Congressman Shuster on the plan and that it’s not “philosophically opposed to privatization.”
“What we want to do is make certain that we have the proper governance, transparency and cost efficiency to drive the reforms needed in the next air-traffic control system that gets modernized,” Bastian said.
Consumer groups, rural airports speak up
Beyond setting up the general organizational structure and a framework for the transition, the bill leaves many of the details on operations and fees to be filled in by the new air traffic organization’s leadership.
Critics have questioned the lack of specificity in the bill and what it will accomplish beyond vague promises of less congestion and more efficiency, often noting that the majority of delays are due to factors under airline control.
Groups representing general aviation operators, rural airports and consumer interests have also warned that privatizing air traffic control would remove a key level of public oversight and concentrate too much power in the hands of commercial airlines.
Shuster’s bill includes some protections for smaller users — which include commuter, agricultural and private flight operations — from overly burdensome fees. But there are still concerns that the new system could shift even more focus and investment to the nation’s largest airports at the expense of the roughly 5,000 other airfields scattered around the U.S.
“There’s a host of ways that private interests and the commercial airlines could alter and run the system to their own benefit to the detriment of consumers and smaller communities,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of the advocacy group Alliance for Aviation Across America.
Lawmakers face a late September deadline to pass a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, the most likely vehicle for air traffic reform. A separate version that does not include privatization plans is also being considered in the Senate, setting up a possible clash in the coming months.