Despite the recent exclusion of privatization of America’s air traffic control system from the most recent FAA reauthorization debate, many stakeholders are still pushing for this risky and eternally unpopular proposal. The reasons that these stakeholders want privatization are obvious, but the arguments against it continue to mount, so its sell-by date is approaching. The latest shoe to drop is problems afflicting the purported models for a U.S. reform, including the National Air Traffic Control Services of the United Kingdom.
First, fans of privatization in Congress might be surprised to learn that delays are rife in the privatized UK airspace. Flights from the 25 busiest airports in the UK departed an average of 15 minutes late in 2017. What might be worse, is that these delays are far from equally distributed, with average delay times ranging by airport from 11 to about 20 minutes, according to the authorities.
The reality is that the reorganization of our air traffic control along British/NATS lines does not fix what people think needs fixing – the inefficiency of passenger arrivals and departures. Free lunches are hard to come by, on or off the planes.
The proposed U.S. cousin of the NATS system may be nonprofit but it would still face budget constraints. The UK system operates under a regulatory requirement to achieve a minimum return on its investments.
There is no money tree under privatization to ensure adequate, fair and unimpeded service. Quite the contrary. Under existing U.S. arrangements, the Federal Aviation Administration has the Treasury as a backstop. There is no danger of service interruption for lack of funds.
Under privatization, an independent, lonely U.S. air traffic control authority would rely on taxes and fees for its revenue. Shortfalls would be paid for by reduced services, as Ryanair contends has happened in Great Britain. In the U.S., the victims would most likely be smaller regional airports and carriers, since they’d lack the influence big airlines would have on a privatized U.S. air traffic control governing board. For proof, just look overseas, where NATS has favored Heathrow and Gatwick Airports over other, smaller London airports. For example, Ryanair, whose UK operations are primarily based at Stansted airport, has publicly accused NATS of “blatant discrimination” given that so many more air traffic control delays are reported at its airport than at the more favored Heathrow.
U.S. air traffic control has a sterling safety record. It’s worth preserving, rather than jeopardizing under a gratuitous reorganization. Congress needs to provide adequate funds for technological modernization, a responsibility it has so far shirked. Privatization, as the U.K.’s experience proves, will not magically produce the revenue that’s needed.
What is certain is that the additional budget constraints that would follow privatization will not improve service. It’s very difficult to do more with less.
Sawicky is an economist and writer specializing in public finance and privatization.