Back-to-back hurricanes have caused billions in damage and disrupted air travel across America. During Irma alone, thousands of flights were grounded or cancelled, stranding countless passengers in the U.S. and around the world. With commercial flight becoming routine for so many Americans, it’s easy to take air travel for granted. But disasters like these remind us how delicate and vulnerable this system can be. And behind every safe takeoff and landing is a complex web of air traffic control systems that ensure tens of millions travel safely, efficiently, and (hopefully) on time.
A new bill in Congress threatens to strip Congressional and executive branch oversight from this critical piece of infrastructure, and put it in the hands of a board of private interests dominated by the commercial airlines. This would be a grave mistake. Decisions that are currently being driven by safety, national security, and public access would instead be focused on cutting costs, inhibiting competition, and reducing access to non-hub airports.
As former astronauts, we know better than most the vital role that aviation plays in making America great. And we know that with proposals such as this in Congress, it is a freedom that unfortunately now hangs by a thin thread.
Proponents of the bill—principally the commercial airlines and their allies—have tried to position air traffic control privatization as simply a minor shift in operational management. It is nothing of the kind. This bill represents a profound shift of our national priorities, with far-ranging repercussions for all Americans, and rural communities in particular.
Thousands of small airports serving rural areas across the country depend on FAA funding for day-to-day operations, as well as technical and safety upgrades. If this bill becomes law, you can bet the first thing the new management group will do is shift resources from these less profitable airports to service the major airline hubs in the northeast— the same airports that are driving most of those record-breaking usage numbers.
Air traffic control privatization would also set our nation back in terms of technology and innovation. By nearly every measure, the U.S. has the largest, busiest, most diverse, safest and most complex airspace system in the world. We are currently in the midst of a transition to Next Generation (NextGen) Air Transportation System, which has already translated into $2.72 billion in savings in passenger time and safety, as well as fuel and aircraft operating costs. It is projected that by 2030, these benefits will total over $160 billion.
The systems that we will have in place at the end of this process will far surpass any other nation in the world—privatized or un-privatized. Yet, long-term funding of our air traffic control system in Congress continues to be held hostage by those pushing privatization, further complicating and delaying bipartisan support for a long-term funding proposal for the FAA.
Moreover, there is no clear consensus on what problem we are trying to solve with privatization. The majority of delays are not caused by air traffic control; neither are the many technological outages, glitches and mass-strandings that plague commercial air travel customers on a weekly basis.
It seems to defy basic logic that we would give the big, commercial airlines and their allies a majority interest in determining how one of the most critical pieces of our national transportation infrastructure is operated and managed at a time when they cannot even seem to manage their own reservation systems or customer service.
Our national air traffic control services represent about 6,000 technicians and 14,500 air traffic controllers who keep America’s airport towers and terminals humming. It is integrated with many aspects of our national defense. Decisions about what communities remain connected to our grid, how air traffic controllers are trained, and how costs and resources are allocated should be made according to our safety and security, not profits or the benefit of a particular industry.
Air traffic control privatization is a deeply flawed proposal that would make our skies less safe, and threaten our very basic, American values of freedom and access. Congress should focus instead on protecting our current air traffic control system, and together we can look forward to another century of American aviation excellence.
Capt. James Lovell (U.S. Navy, Retired), Capt. Robert “Hoot” Gibson (U.S. Navy, Retired), Capt. Kenneth Cockrell (U.S. Navy, Retired), and Lt. General Thomas Stafford (U.S. Air Force, Retired) are retired NASA astronauts, whose collective experience spans decades and includes serving as Commander of Apollo 13 mission, Commander of Apollo 10 in May 1969, piloting the first Space Shuttle mission to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and five-time Space Shuttle crew member.