James Van Laak AVWEB
Guest Blog: Why Privatizing ATC Would Break the System
November 19, 2017
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  • One of the most important conversations going on in aviation today has to do with the proposal to remove the air traffic control organization from the FAA and turn it into a privatized entity.  Proponents claim that this would free the function from the bureaucracy and petty budgetary pressures of the FAA and lead to more efficient operations.  They also claim that it would result in more rapid modernization of the air traffic control system.

    Opponents to the privatization proposal base most of their arguments on three points.  First, they point out that air traffic control function is working well today, and that there is no reason to fix something that is not broken.  Second, they claim that moving to a privatized system will inevitably lead to a user-fee system dominated by the airlines and which would penalize the general aviation sector.   Third, they point out that this entity would have a monopoly control of the air traffic control system with minimal oversight by the government, a recipe for corruption and gross mismanagement.

    As a pilot with over 47 years of experience operating under the FAA’s authority and five years as a senior executive at the agency, I have a strong opinion about these issues.  In summary, I find the privatization arguments to be weak and driven by political dogma, and the arguments against completely valid.
    But beyond my traditional aviation credentials, I am also an expert in the design and operation of complex systems.  This leads to a different and, in my view, more important conclusion about the issue based not on whom the controllers work for, but how the system works.

    Air transportation as we know it today is a complex system that requires many different elements work together well, not just ATC.  Obviously air traffic control is a critical piece of that system, but it is neither the only one nor even the most important.  Other elements are required to ensure that the flying public is safely transported to their destinations.  These include:

    Our safe and effective air transportation system works as well as it does because all of these elements are predominantly under the control of one agency that can make them work together.  Airmen are trained and overseen to make sure that safe operating practices are followed.  Flight standards inspectors ensure that the navigational and airport systems comply with established standards.  Aircraft are designed and maintained to be safe.  Aircraft navigation systems meet the requirements of the air traffic control system so that both know what to expect from each other, across countless combinations of ground, air, airspace, and weather conditions.

    This integration would not be as effective if the many functions belonged to different organizations even within the government.  Pulling a critical piece out of the government to create a new and far more contentious barrier to coordination would be damaging and would certainly result in more near misses and more.

    It is true that some countries have implemented a privatized air traffic control function, but their ability to do so benefits from American leadership of the overall aviation system.  FAA regulations, standards, and processes form the foundation for most of the world and thereby hold the system together.

    All pilots know that the FAA has problems in the way it does its job, so it is fair to ask how many of these might honestly be made better by moving air traffic to a privatized organization?  By my count, damn few.  If perchance some improvement was found in one or two functions, it would be far outweighed by the breakage caused when air traffic was separated from the world air transportation system as a whole.
    This leads to the most important conclusion of all:  Air traffic control should not be privatized because doing so would gravely weaken the safety and effectiveness of the premier air transportation system on the planet.

    James Van Laak is a former Deputy Associate Adminstrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a F-106 and A-10 pilot and worked at DARPA and at NASA as a manager on the International Space Station.