The United States would be far from the first major country to privatize air traffic control, as the Donald Trump administration proposes. Some 60 countries including Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom have gone that route, and planes there do not collide willy nilly.
But within a decade of the Wall Street meltdown, which showed how little some corporations care about public welfare, and with daily evidence that the American airline industry cares little about people’s comfort, well-being or convenience — here in the U.S.A., for now at least, we’re going to say no. Don’t do it.
The plan working its way through the House and Senate would establish a not-for-profit corporation with a board comprised mainly of airline interests to run air traffic control while the Federal Aviation Administration continues to oversee safety.
The main rationale is reasonable on the surface: The FAA has encountered delays and cost overruns in technology projects, and a private board probably could do better at that. But there’s a fundamental lack of trust in taking this critically important work out of public control, with concerns coming from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
So we’re with Sully on this.
The hero of the Miracle on the Hudson — landing a plane without power on the river in New York City with no injuries — Capt. Sully Sullenberger has become an ad hoc defender of the public air traffic control system. He is persuasive.
“I know what works and what doesn’t,” Sullenberger says. “Our air traffic control system is the best, the safest in the world. Why would we give such an important valuable national asset to the largest airlines — the same airlines … who often put expedience and cost-reduction ahead of the safety and welfare of others?”
Following a 2009 plane crash, the FAA dramatically increased the hours of experience and training needed for co-pilots and first officers. The privatization move includes ratcheting back some of those training requirements, another concern of Sullenberger.
A major fear of privatization is that big airlines dominating the non-profit board would work against the interests of general aviation and corporate planes. A healthy board balance and more public regulation could prevent that, but regulation is not a favored strategy of this administration.
A bill to reauthorize funding of the FAA has to pass Congress by Sept. 30. With wide disagreement on how to proceed with privatization, we could end up with a plan that is the equivalent of the rush job to pass health care reform, which would have removed some 20 million Americans from insurance coverage. Speaking of the public welfare.
Leave air traffic control in public hands for now, until careful consideration and broad agreement can land on a better plan.