The Gazette recently printed a guest opinion discussing the complex issue of updating U.S. Air Traffic Control. One item in that discussion that causes me to take pause is advocating for the current legislation called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, Reauthorization Act. This legislation proposes to take the largest, most complex, and safest Air Traffic Control system in the world and hand it over to a private quasi-governmental agency similar to the U.S. Postal System.
Why, you ask?
Because that is what a contingent of advocates, including most of the airlines, have been pushing members of Congress to do for many years. They make the case that ATC under the FAA is too inefficient and bureaucratic, and that a private organization would be able to implement the newest navigational technologies quicker, particularly the FAA’s ongoing effort to move the ATC from monitoring aircraft with radar to using satellite GPS, as well as implementing more efficient landing approaches.
Interestingly, the Billings ATC has been updated with the newest and latest NextGen technology and is currently utilizing that technology. The opposition to this legislation believes that the main reason for this privatization effort is because the airlines want more control over ATC. Excluding the airlines, the majority of the other users of the ATC system are mostly opposed to the transfer of the ATC from the FAA’s oversight.
Another major issue concerning this transfer of the ATC to a private operation is how will this new private ATC be funded?
Currently, the FAA receives its funding from a fuel tax imposed on aviation fuel. Since ATC is just one aspect of the FAA’s function, ATC would likely not continue to receive funding once it is removed from the FAA’s oversight and would instead need to come up with a fee-based system to charge its users. In other countries that moved to a privatized ATC system, the fees to use the new system increased at least 30 percent. This user fee system might be comparable to taking all of the roads and highways in the U.S. and making them all toll roads or charging the users of the road a fee for every mile driven.
As director of Billings Logan International Airport, I also have concerns regarding the allocation of the ATC’s resources if this privatization takes place. Having a fully staffed ATC tower at our airport that is operational 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, as we currently do, is very reassuring.
Under a privatized ATC, one could speculate that this new agency would likely need to make cost decisions that could start to pull resources away from the smaller, less populated areas to support the large urban airports. Of the 829 million passengers that used a commercial service airport in 2016, over 72 percent of those passengers went through the 30 largest airports. When you look at the top 61 airports, the percentage of passengers goes to just over 88 percent. The remaining 493 airports reporting passenger traffic, including all airports in Montana, make up the remaining 12 percent. Many of those larger airports currently have capacity constraints and they are spending billions to resolve those issues. Once those constraints are resolved and the airlines bring even more flights to those larger airports, the ATC at those airports will likely need to ramp up to handle the additional traffic. Under a new private system, it could become very tempting to start moving the ATC resources being spent in Montana and other rural states, to the larger airports where most of the air traffic takes place, something that may not be in the best interest of Billings or Montana.
In summary, any legislation to make improvements to ATC should be thoroughly vetted to provide a plan that all users of the ATC system can live with, including the smallest users in rural America.