The Pilot's Lounge #49:
How Many Are Going to Die, Mr. President?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

The idea of a private ATC system for the U.S. has been tossed around for decades. Usually, arguments revolve around whether it would cost more or less than the current FAA-operated system. But AVweb's Rick Durden believes there is a much more serious issue at stake: More people will die if users have to pay for ATC each time they use it.

The Pilots LoungeI was sitting in one of the big chairs here in the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport when I read that the president, on June 6, 2002, had signed an executive order dictating that air traffic control is no longer an inherently federal function. That act was a significant procedural step toward imposition of one of the worst ideas that has been rattling around Washington, D.C., for over two decades: a fee-based, private ATC system in this country. The current administration, as with prior ones from both parties, claims that the federal budget will somehow look better, or the administration will be more ideologically pure (actually, I can't recall which excuse is currently in vogue go ahead and pick one), if we let a private company run our ATC system. Apart from the fact that political ideology has no place in air safety, and that having to add the expense of a profitable return on capital to an existing system and then pay for a layer of FAA oversight on top of it all is fiscal foolishness, no one has yet addressed the lunacy of a fee-based ATC from the perspective of its true cost: more dead pilots and passengers.

Fine Tune The FAA's Involvement, Don't Toss It Out

I've been critical of the FAA in the past and will be in the future. It has serious internal management problems and has been notoriously unwilling to rid itself of its incompetent employees. Nevertheless, it has created the very best and safest ATC system in the world. No other country even comes remotely close to handling the level of traffic that is handled by the FAA. Don't believe me? Go spend some time flying IFR in some other countries and then let's talk. Oh, and don't forget to pay the bills you get for the "service" you receive in some of those countries. FAA controllers safely handle tens of thousands of aircraft daily in spite of obsolescent computer systems, fumbling managers, personnel shortages, and various other aches and pains. The important thing is not to confuse constructive criticism of the very best system in the world with some sophomoric desire to tear it down and toss it out.

Not only do we currently have a system that is head and shoulders above anywhere else, we largely finance it through the tax we pay on aviation fuel. It's about the most egalitarian method conceivable. If you send a document via one of the overnight services, the carrier pays a tax on the fuel it uses and passes that cost on to you. Thus, you pay your share of the cost of ATC, as well as for the pavement on which the airplane taxies and the ILS it uses to shoot the approach. If you fly an airplane, the tax you pay on avgas pays for the flight following you get en route or the other conversations you have with controllers.

Remember that day you had a bit of a panic because you smelled fuel in the cockpit and decided to divert into the larger airport nearby because that's where the fire trucks live? The avgas tax you've been paying paid for the controller that acted fast, spoke clearly and calmly when you were more than a little nervous, aimed you at an airport lost in the haze, and gave you priority to land.

Think for a moment. You were a little hesitant to make that call to ATC to start with, right? You weren't really sure what you were experiencing was enough of a problem to warrant admitting over the radio, were you? Didn't want to draw attention to yourself, did you? You worried about paperwork if you got priority handling (and discovered that there is none)? But you called. The pertinent question is: Would you have called if you knew that you would be billed for that conversation? You just hesitated a moment while you thought about the question, didn't you? It tossed another variable into a decision-making equation that shouldn't be there, didn't it?

Pssst, Hey, Buddy. Wanna Buy Some Time With ATC?

Air Traffic ControllerPrivatization would still give us the pleasure of paying a tax on avgas to help pay for ATC, airport improvements, navaids, and so forth. However, if one recalls Economics 101 (and the way costs shot up in the countries that have privatized ATC), the cost of having a natural monopoly run by a for-profit company is higher than one that does not have to pay a return on capital. (There is no truth to the rumor that both airplanes in the UK were in the air simultaneously in February, thus causing the current, serious monetary shortfall its privatized system is facing.) Then, surprise, surprise, on top of the cost of controllers, computers, radios, and return on investment, we will also have to pay for a layer of FAA oversight on the private company (and if that supervision is lax ... well, remember Enron and the price of electricity?), so the cost gets higher still. We get all this without any increase in the level of safety whatsoever, just a different structure for the system. Like it so far? In return for a new system, we will then have the distinct joy and privilege of paying a fee every time we talk with a controller. For any reason. You want flight following? You'll get a bill. Weather a little questionable, so an IFR flight plan might be a good idea? You'll pay just to file it, more if you actually use it. Want to get an instrument rating? Tack on the cost of every practice approach you shoot while talking with a controller.

Extortionists have gone to prison for less.

The Sneak Attack

In the past, presidents of both political persuasions have stood up for what they believed with regard to ATC (whether we the people agreed with it or not), and publicly sent proposals to Congress to privatize the system. Congress repeatedly did its homework and went about vigorously, and sensibly, shooting the proposals down. The direct, honest approach has not worked, so our current president skulked around to a back door technique (in the words of a critic of the use of an executive order by the previous president), used by presidents of both parties to jam an idea that will not stand public scrutiny down our collective throats. He signed an executive order redefining the rules of the game rather than let it be debated publicly. The basic concept of privatization of ATC is unpalatable; the method used to serve the dish to us in the aviation community showed questionable character on the part of a person who ran on a platform of honorable behavior. Perhaps he assumed that, because most pilots are politically conservative, he could get away with the executive-order approach.

Why A Bad Idea Won't Go Away
U.S. Capitol

The privatization of ATC is a prime example of the "inside the Beltway" system in action. It started when one of the presidential administrations, somewhere back in the last century, hired a bunch of just-out-of-school MBAs and law-school grads, educated beyond their intellect, as political interns. The shiny young kids were assigned the task of writing up a program that could be molded to look like it fit the ideology of the party in power, despite the fact that it actually just allowed a very large contract to be awarded to the appropriate major campaign donor. The young geniuses had no experience in the real world that would allow them to gauge the effect of their drafting, nor were they assigned to see how it would affect the average man or woman trying to make a living and have a decent quality of life. A proposal for a fee-based privatized ATC system emerged and has been trotted over to Congress annually, ever since.

If you are not convinced that ATC privatization is not just a method of awarding a juicy contract to the appropriate administration good boy, and you really believe that it is truly a more politically pure way to run the system (you probably still clap for Tinkerbell), take a look at the fact that this plum has been pursued by the last several presidents, whether Democratic or Republican. Look, I lived several years in Chicago, which probably isn't any more corrupt than any other major city it's just more open about it. After a healthy dose of Chicago politics, one catches on that big programs are never about political beliefs: They are about who gets the juicy contracts. The fact that we citizens will have to pay more for airline tickets, air freight, and flying little airplanes when ATC is privatized is not significant to those administration officials inside the Beltway. Their overriding concern is to use their political clout to give a big contract to the company that will then provide them enough money to stay in a position of power.

For those of us doing our level best to fly safely within our budgets, it has been fortunate, in a way, that ATC privatization is a matter of who gets a contract worth billions; it hasn't been implemented, because both parties want it, and neither has had the political muscle necessary to give it to its chosen Sugar Daddy. On the downside, it means a stupid, expensive idea hasn't gone away.

Heretofore, the argument against privatization made by those seeking to keep it out of the administration's hands (whether Republican or Democratic) has been based solely on economics, even though it is absolutely correct: fee-based, privatized ATC is expensive, inefficient, and wasteful. But because no one really wants a package this big killed, the economic argument is the only one wheeled out each time the issue is debated. It's time for both parties to face up to the real reason privatization of ATC has to be stopped: It ignores the realities of human behavior, and will therefore kill people.

We In Aviation Are Frustratingly (To The Politicians) Independent
VFR Flight

As anyone who has done any foreign travel or gotten to know people from other countries will attest, Americans are far more independent and far less willing to blindly follow government fiat than the citizens of any other country. We have an interesting tendency to say we love our country and hate our government, because the sentiment can be so true. More than anyone in the world, we tend to be defiantly self-reliant: an attitude largely responsible for propelling us to world-power status. We see this reflected in the percentage of Americans, as opposed to the citizens of other countries, who enter the world of general aviation, a world that requires independent decision-making. The decision to fly is a reflection of our propensity to make individual decisions and to let others do so as well, with a relative lack of outside interference.

We Americans fly for pleasure, for travel, for business, and to make a living, at a higher rate than any other country, and have far fewer restrictions on doing so. We aggressively defend our constitutional right to travel, and we do our best to do that travel by air. We don't like riding aerial buses. We want control of our destiny, so we fly ourselves. We are a recalcitrant lot, standing up for (and voicing) what we perceive to be our rights. We form user organizations to make our voices heard. We also complain about the spiraling costs of flying, and do our best to keep them down. We pay a hundred bucks to rent an airplane for an hour, and go nuclear over a $3 landing fee when we do not see a justification for it, because we know that if we do not speak up, the fee may be $15 next time, and because we have watched that pattern evolve in Europe.

Because of our independence, we Americans are also more willing than any others to break rules with which we strongly disagree. Remember the 55-mph national speed limit? We question authority when it imposes irrational rules upon us. Sometimes our questions reveal that an emperor has no clothes. We tend not to respect governmental action that increases our costs without a corresponding benefit.

As pilots, we are trained to respect the Federal Aviation Regulations, partially because we learn that the vast majority of them are pretty much common-sense safety rules. We have heard the disturbing statement that each FAR came about because of a dead pilot. Yet we still retain a healthy skepticism and do not respect a rule just because it is a number in a book: We do so because we have made our own decisions regarding its value. After all, we know that each rule was written by a mortal who may or may not have the aviation knowledge and experience we do. For example, alcohol plays a role in fully half of serious automobile and boat accidents, yet it shows up in a miniscule fraction of aircraft accidents. That isn't because the FAA requires eight hours of abstinence from the bottle before venturing aloft; it is because we know that the mandated time may not be nearly enough for alcohol to leave our systems, so we tend to allow a much longer period.

Pilots Make Rational, Level-Of-Safety Decisions Every Day

We pilots constantly make personal decisions regarding safety. We generally buy the level of safety we can afford. We pay for needed maintenance on our airplanes, install standby vacuum pumps and other redundancies, and carry handheld navcoms. While we know we would be much safer flying turbine-powered airplanes than piston, few of us can afford to do so, and therefore we plan appropriately for piston operations. We routinely decide that what we can afford to buy in the way of safety equipment is adequate to allow us to conduct our flights at an acceptable level of risk. We also routinely cancel proposed flights because we cannot afford to use an airplane with, say, icing protection, needed to fly in conditions that exist on a particular day.

Human Factors and Fee-Based ATC

Because we analyze risk versus benefit, if we are forced to pay to use ATC services, we are going to use the system less, automatically decreasing the overall level of safety. We will avoid filing flight plans when we do not see their value, and no amount of preaching will change our minds. We will be even less willing to call ATC in an emergency (we are loathe to declare an emergency now, for crying out loud), and even fewer of us than now will call ATC when things are merely uncertain. There is plenty of accident data to show that people have died because pilots didn't ask for help under the current system. Adding a user fee is not going to improve the situation, it will add a money factor to the natural hesitation to call for assistance, which means an additional percentage will die. Is that worth the price of awarding a big contract to a political crony?

Fewer Instrument Ratings More Accidents
IFR Flight

Over the years we have learned that the process of upgrading knowledge, skills, and judgment when obtaining an instrument rating means that a pilot is less likely to be involved in an accident. Sure, an instrument rating is not for everyone, but even the insurance companies have recognized the benefit and offer lower rates to pilots who have demonstrated the ability to acquire the rating. The training involves a lot of communication with ATC. Having to pay for each of those instrument approaches, holding patterns, vectors, and missed approaches will jack the cost of the rating up nicely. That increase in cost is what economists would refer to as the "marginal cost." Every economist in the world will agree that when the marginal cost of doing something goes up, fewer people will do that thing. (Okay, there are some oddball exceptions: In the '60s, one of the lower-quality bourbons doubled its price and its sales shot up because people thought that a higher price meant higher quality.) A jump in the cost of the instrument rating means a certain percentage of pilots who would otherwise get the rating will not do so. Because of that, some of them will die in aircraft accidents who would otherwise have lived to a ripe old age.

We cannot prove which accidents will or will not happen, but a jump in the price of getting an instrument rating beyond normal inflation means that more pilots, and their passengers, will die because they made an economic decision forced on them by a politician who wanted to change a system that worked just fine.

Flight Following Today, Captain? Nah

ATC privatization means you will get a bill when you call approach control or center to get flight following on a pleasant VFR day. Will you make that call? A certain percentage of those who do so now will stop. They will rationally decide for themselves that the artificial cost imposed by a politician is not worth the benefit. Of those, some, along with their passengers, will die in midair collisions that would have been prevented by flight following. Is any one of those deaths worth the price of the privatization contract?

Filing IFR Today, Captain? Here's Your Bill

If the weather is at that "maybe go IFR maybe go VFR" level where you would normally just file an IFR flight plan because it is less hassle than struggling along in marginal VFR, will you go VFR because of a politically generated fee? Human behavior says that a certain percentage of those decisions will be swayed to the side of going VFR. Yes, we know that the greatest risk to pilots is trying to fly VFR into IMC, yet despite training and more training, we continue to do it. The FAA knows that right now going IFR is a very good addition to one's level of safety in marginal VFR weather. The FAA also knows that when IFR flight plans cost money, more pilots will chose to go VFR, and more people will die. But the FAA cannot speak out against its political boss, who is for privatization. Isn't politics fun when an agency charged with improving aviation safety has a gag order on it on a topic involving safety?

The examples above show that ATC privatization means people are going to die because honest, legal decisions will become adversely affected by an artificial cost, politically imposed on the normal risk-vs.-benefit analysis made by individual pilots. The pilots are not stupid. They do not have death wishes. User-fee ATC privatization puts another variable into the equation that should not be there, especially when we have a perfectly workable method of funding a good ATC system through the avgas tax.

Fee-Based ATC Makes The Rogue Pilot More Dangerous
ATC Radar Screen

There is a darker side to this issue and it needs to be faced squarely. It became apparent when the controllers were fired after the strike in the 1980s. For a period of time, the system was so short-handed it could not come close to handling the IFR demand, so it was necessary to obtain a reservation and a slot to fly IFR. As I've written about before, there are a certain percentage of rogues, those who have little or no respect for the rules and mores of their society, in any group of people. (Over the years I've come to believe that aviation has a lower percentage of such lowlifes than the population as a whole, because the training involved in obtaining a certificate does serve to keep a certain amount of the riffraff out.) After the controllers were fired, some rogue pilots, upon being unable to get an IFR reservation, went ahead and flew in IMC without talking to anyone and without turning on their transponders. Over beers, the working controllers would break a sweat when they talked about the occasional primary target on their screen in an area where they knew the cloud tops were high and the bases were down to the deck. I looked at an accident in which a twin crashed short of the runway, in fog, killing all aboard. The pilot wasn't talking to anyone. The altimeter was still set correctly for the departure airport, but was well off for the low pressure existing at the destination. It indicated very nearly the minimum descent altitude for the approach to that airport.

During the hysteria following the Cerritos, California midair between the Cherokee and the DC-9 in the LAX TCA (now Class B airspace), the FAA enlarged the LAX TCA and took away the VFR corridors through it. Then controllers quit issuing clearances for VFR airplanes to enter the TCA. The alternative was a nearly 80-mile slog around the monster to get from one side of L.A. to the other. Faced with such bureaucratic stupidity, some rogues simply turned off their transponders and flew through the TCA anyway.

Because we know what rogue pilots have done in the past, making the decision to set up a fee-based ATC system means that the rogues are going to fly in IMC without talking to anyone rather than pay the fee. While we can predict that it will not be very many, it's a safe prediction that some of them are going to kill people as a result. It's an ugly reality, but it has to be faced.

And no, the solution to the fact we are willing to recognize a problem with rogue pilots is not to ground all general aviation and impose fee-based ATC just because they exist. It is to honestly recognize that a fee-based ATC enhances an existing problem and factor it into the process of deciding whether to tear down the current system. The predictable behavior of rogues is merely one more factor that militates against privatization.

The Administration's "Fix" Is Worse Than The Problem

Why change a system that works pretty well? A simple lack of perfection is never reason to abandon a system. There is no need to use a meat axe to deal with the current challenges facing our ATC system. The system is not failing. It needs to be fine-tuned, not tossed out. A fee-based, privatized ATC system is a corrupt, dangerous concept that politicians want for their own reasons, not because it will make any improvements to our ATC system. Should it ever be implemented, some of us are going to die.

Mr. President, on behalf of those who have a very personal interest in how safe our skies are, rescind your executive order of June 6, 2002, and continue to recognize what we have known for over 60 years: that ATC is an inherently federal function, and drop any plans you have to set up a fee-based system.

See you next month.