Guest Blog: Why Privatizing ATC Would Break The System

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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, 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 to 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:

  • Pilot training, certification, regulation and enforcement
  • Airport design, construction and operation
  • Aircraft design, construction and operation
  • Aircraft maintenance and modification regulation and oversight
  • Avionics and navigation systems design, certification, maintenance and oversight
  • Air traffic procedures, including airspace design and special-use airspace management
  • Weather information dissemination and air traffic avoidance procedures
  • And many more

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 Administrator 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.

 
 
 

Comments (25)

Interesting! With the public comments that Adminstrator Huerta has said makes me wonder how many more FAA officials agree with the author and are not commenting because those persons are protecting their own careers. Hopefully the aviation organizations all remember this when a new adminstrator is going through the approval process in the Senate.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 19, 2017 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Good blog. I understand and agree. "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 security) and effectiveness of the premier air transportation system on the planet."

Additionally, The Hill: "This is not just a bad idea - it is a disingenuous attempt to disguise a huge corporate giveaway as a pro-market reform, deepening the very problems it is intended to fix."

thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/345157-big-airlines-running-air-traffic-control-what-could-go-wrong

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 19, 2017 7:32 PM    Report this comment

From the UK - over here our ATC system has been "privatised" for some time now. It's actually termed a "public/private partnership" - NATS, 51% government owned and 49% by a consortium of UK airlines. NATS is run as not for profit, but is expected not to be a burden on the taxpayer and, indeed, returns a surplus - paid for by users of the system, of course.

The impact on GA has been minimal so far as generally the government still protects GA and the military against the purely commercially interests of the airlines. Financially GA has always paid airways service charges to fly IFR in the airways system, that is the norm in Europe, but access to other controlled airspace remains free, in the interest of safety. We do have a culture of paying our way here, landing fees at airfields are the norm.

One aspect which has happened with all the historically state owned and now privatised organisations in the UK (there are many) is that the management structures have burgeoned at considerably higher salaries than the same people were getting, doing the same job in the public sector. Generally the newly privatised organisations offer a less accountable, much poorer service at higher cost so that profits and dividends are maximised, understandably, as their first duty is to their shareholders not to the country or to the general good.

Posted by: Steve Sharpe | November 20, 2017 3:34 AM    Report this comment

I will repeat my previous statement evidenced by many years of corporate, government and law enforcement flying! Privatization is nothing more than payback time for political contributors.
Keith Culpepper - Retired

Posted by: Franklin Culpepper | November 20, 2017 6:29 AM    Report this comment

Van Laak's argument is that air transportation is such a complex system, that all elements have to be done by the same entity--that two separate entities cannot coordinate. If that's the case, then I guess we must nationalize all airport authorities, flight schools, aircraft manufacturers, MROs, and avionics manufacturers.

Posted by: John Smith | November 20, 2017 7:52 AM    Report this comment

I disagree with Mr. Van Laak on several points. Having a single government entity responsible to both operate and to oversee any transportation system inevitably leads to unacceptable compromises. If ATC is privatized the FAA will still retain regulatory authority over the entire national aviation system. It should be safe to assume that any legislation establishing a privatized system would include language guaranteeing general and business aviation access to the system is not compromised on a financial basis. Mr. Van Laak's statements about the FAA's worldwide leadership role seem to assume the FAA will somehow lose the regulatory authorities contained in the Federal Aviation Act. Nothing I have seen or read in the privatization proposals that have been advanced supports that assumption.

Mr. Van Laak conveniently ignores the major factor that inhibits modernization of the ATC system; the incredibly convoluted and inefficient government procurement system coupled with a funding system held hostage by the executive and congressional branches to political imperatives.A privatized system, having a consistent and reliable revenue stream, would have access to private capital markets with assured long-term funding of system improvements and upgrades.

I personally don't understand why anyone flying an aircraft that costs more than my house is worth would be grumbling about paying a fee for ATC services. The fact is that if service charges are based on a seat-mile basis, as most privatized systems are, the airlines would be picking up the tab for the vast majority of the system costs.

In summary, Mr. Van Laak sounds a lot like a government bureaucrat afraid of being out of a job if ATC is privatized.

My comments are based on my 24 years of experience in the FAA air traffic system, 18 years as a senior engineer with an aerospace company working on major FAA ATC system procurements and on privatized ATC systems in other countries, and as a an instrument rated.commercial pilot (ASEL).

Posted by: Donald Beeson | November 20, 2017 4:33 PM    Report this comment

Trust me, do not worry. We good! Privatized ATC Won't Include GA User Fees.
Reps. Sam Graves and Todd Rokita say legislation calling for creation of a privatized ATC system won't levy per-flight user fees on GA.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 20, 2017 8:41 PM    Report this comment

Yes Raf and the check is in the mail, and I will respect you in the morning. Ok sarcasm off.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | November 20, 2017 8:55 PM    Report this comment

Very, very few people own aircraft worth more than an average house, Mr Beeson. You appear to be very out of touch.

Those guys who do don't generally care about fees. They have pricing power. (This means they pass on the fees you charge them to their customers or clients or even back to the government.) Better to reduce the riff raff at the airport in their minds.

Also, GA pays for services now, through fuel taxes. The concern is who will be setting the future fees and rules, and the answer is clearly the airlines. No thanks. We already have a system designed for the airlines, and they act as if we are all equal when we clearly are not. It's no fees now, and a blip is a blip tomorrow.

Let's face it. The socialist democracies do a lot better with public private organizations than the US does. We are all right to be concerned how this sort of thing will work here especially since the no fees on GA has never stuck anywhere.

Say know to Crony Capitalism. Say yes to free markets. Privatize the garbage collection, not ATC.

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 20, 2017 10:40 PM    Report this comment

Let's see how the US government has done on things that were either "privatized" or farmed out. FSS's? How long did it take to get FSS to work as well as it did when the FAA was actually running it? Except for filing some international flight plans I usually avoid dealing with FSS as much as possible when flying IFR. Post Office? Was supposed to be self-sustaining without further tax payer support. And when the Post Master wanted to raise stamp prices to keep off tax-payer support, Congress kept interfering with operations. And what about Amtrak? A lot of the delays with NextGen are created when the FAA changes to more efficient routings then the NIMBY's complain about noise. That is not going to change no matter who is running ATC. No thanks, the last thing I want to see is Congress giving away ATC control and operations to some non-governmental organization that is run by the airlines. The past track record for "privatization" or farming out government functions sucks to put it plainly!

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 21, 2017 1:41 AM    Report this comment

It is a matter of widespread faith that "the airlines will run things."
With apologies to the faithful, NOTHING that's in the actual Bill that's in the Congress supports that faith-driven assertion. Nothing.
It could happen. But not because of the language of the Bill that currently is under consideration. Straw. Man.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 21, 2017 5:19 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Beeson, please be advised that Congress exempted the FAA from government wide procurement rules in the 1990s, as well as exempting them from most personnel rules (5 USC); they are permitted to set up their own system on procurement.

While a privatized system might have access to capital markets, with that access would come increased borrowing costs as well as a shift in focus for the organization from service to ensuring cash flow primarily aimed at air carrier airports.

Posted by: Don Gallion | November 21, 2017 6:45 AM    Report this comment

"I personally don't understand why anyone flying an aircraft that costs more than my house is worth would be grumbling about paying a fee for ATC services."

I don't know what social circle you run in, but how many people do you know who sole-own an aircraft worth more than your house? Compare that to how many airplanes are at any given GA airport that are worth $150k or less, many of which are either owned by a partnership or club or other multi-user arrangement. And the vast majority of these planes are owned by people (or groups of people) who get heartburn every time it goes in for an annual inspection. Adding more fees will only serve to drive out more of the bottom end of aviation.


"It should be safe to assume that any legislation establishing a privatized system would include language guaranteeing general and business aviation access to the system is not compromised on a financial basis."

Why is that safe to assume? It's not even safe to assume that the middle class will still be around as we know it in 10 years at the rate things are going in Congress. Privatizing (in as much as you can call that) ATC services is just another way to squeeze more out of the middle class while enriching those at the top.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 21, 2017 7:33 AM    Report this comment

Hey Rafael Sierra, did you say no GA user fees? Yes, I did. What I didn't say was that every year, 169 million pax and 11 million air cargo tons will pay the piper via airline compulsory contributions.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 21, 2017 7:42 AM    Report this comment

NOTHING that's in the actual Bill that's in the Congress supports that faith-driven assertion. Nothing that's in the actual Bill that's in the Congress supports that faith-driven assertion.

Yars is correct, there is nothing in the bill that indicates the airlines will run things but I don't see anything in the bill that guarantees they wont. Like the Affordable Care Act, the best intentions and highest ideals can turn into a trainwreck as soon as it hits the real world. And like the ACA, I cannot help but believe Congress' main driver here is to take something hellishly complex and costly and get someone else to cover the tab. The belief privatization would, just by it's nature, create a better, more cost effective and fairer ATC system is a pipe dream. I would want to see a lot more of the" how" than the 'Let's do it and see."

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 21, 2017 7:53 AM    Report this comment

Looks like: ATC Privatization sounds good. Smells bad.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 21, 2017 8:30 AM    Report this comment

As previous posters have noted, there is nothing in the current proposal HR 2997 that ordains airline control over the privatized ATC corporate board. That could not be said of its predecessor HR 4441. It was through the strong, coordinated action of (corporate, part 135 and private GA) advocacy groups that the airline industry grip on the board nominating process was loosened in the current bill. Today the airline industry is relying on a coalition of part 121 carriers, their pilots union (ALPA) and the controllers union (NATCA) to nominate a working majority of board members favorable to its agenda. That outcome is not guaranteed but the airlines like their odds.

Something that does not seem to get much attention in the debate is why the airline industry has mounted such a forceful attack on the FAA, and exactly what do the airlines expect to get with a privatized ATC system that is denied to them now. I have a privately commissioned report that goes into this in some detail and will be glad to send it along to anyone interested - 209 640-2678.

Posted by: kim hunter | November 21, 2017 6:35 PM    Report this comment

Good report.

Congregational research service

Air Traffic Inc.: Considerations Regarding the Corporatization of Air Traffic Control
Bart Elias Specialist in Aviation Policy
May 16, 2017

Summary.

Over the past 40 years, Congress has intermittently considered proposals to establish a government corporation or private entity to carry out air traffic functions currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While the issue had been relatively dormant since a proposal offered by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s failed to gain the support of Congress, interest reemerged following budget sequester related funding cuts to FAA in FY2013. In the 114th Congress, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ordered H.R. 4441, an FAA reauthorization bill that proposed to establish a government chartered air traffic services corporation, to be reported. However, the bill was never reported in the House, and the FAA extension act passed by Congress in July 2016 (P.L. 114190) did not make any organizational reforms regarding air traffic services. Authorizations under that extension expire at the end of FY2017, and debate over air traffic services reform has arisen once more. Read more ...

fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43844.pdf

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 21, 2017 7:26 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Beeson seems to have forgotten how not long ago GA and the "fatcats" in their private jets were vilified in the press by the airlines for not paying their fair share. How long does anyone think it will take for them to take that route again if ATC were privatized? While GA is offered a carrot of not paying fees to accept this misguided plan, it wont be long before the airlines and their mismanagement ways will be crying for that to change. With the board stacked with airline people, I give it maybe a year or two.

Posted by: Joe Preston | November 22, 2017 7:28 AM    Report this comment

On target Mr. Preston.

19 The ATC Corporation (2016) In February 2016, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee acted favorably on the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 (H.R. 4441, 114th Congress). Title II of the bill detailed a plan to establish a not-for-profit, federally chartered corporation that would assume responsibility for providing air traffic services currently provided by FAA. The corporation was to operate as a nonprofit exempt from federal taxes, with primary responsibility to provide air traffic services in domestic airspace and in international airspace delegated to the United States. The proposed corporation was to be operated as a nonprofit without investors, but would have been permitted to issue debt instruments, such as bonds, to raise money for capital investments. Under the provisions of the bill as introduced, the corporation was to be overseen by a board of directors nominated by individuals appointed by various stakeholder groups. The board of directors was to consist of
 two directors appointed by the Secretary of Transportation;
 four directors representing mainline air carriers;
 two directors representing general aviation owners and operators;
 one director representing the principal air traffic controllers union; and
 one director representing the largest airline pilots union. Under the proposal, the corporation's chief executive officer would have also served as a board member as well as having responsibility for day-to-day management and direction of the corporation and its employees.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 22, 2017 8:05 AM    Report this comment

There is one item I haven't seen mentioned.

Currently aviation fuel taxes pay for air traffic services. Here in Canada that was true back when Transport Canada (gov agency) was operating air traffic services. When Nav Canada, the non-profit air traffic corporation was spun off, they started charging for services. Fuel taxes have never been reduced, and indeed have increased since then. Near as I can tell, its just all about getting more money for politicians to spend.

Posted by: GERRY VAN DYK | November 22, 2017 12:31 PM    Report this comment

While it's popular, as in several previous comments, to describe this as a "corporate grab", I think it's more as Gerry notes with his comment on Canada's fuel taxes, primarily a hidden tax increase. The government's idea is that they can offload costs but retain the current tax income.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 22, 2017 3:54 PM    Report this comment

Things that amaze me about these ATC Privatization dilemma. One is the FAA's effort to satisfy its "politruk" rather than its customers. The other is the failure by the primary aviation stakeholders to protect their customers. And, the most pathetic one is the disregard of the collateral cost damage by the politruk affecting more than 800 MILLION domestic air travelers annually and adding to the the cost of air cargo.

U.S. General Aviation is small potatoes here. We small, we weak, we don't count. If any sector is going to make a difference is going to be the 800 million uninformed air travelers and those who pay for air freight.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 23, 2017 11:22 AM    Report this comment

By an large we have the best ATC system ever in the world.
Why would anyone want to replace it, this push for "privatization" has nothing but greed and corruption behind it.
I have been flying our system for about 40 years and still do regularly and for both fun and business. There is nothing better in terms of Service, Safety, and general goodness.
They got rid of our FSS some years ago I lost my DTC Duat and the system is not much better if any. ATC in its current form is as good as it gets. Costs will go up with anything such as they are proposing, I also like the assurance of "no funny business" with a Federal Agency, take ATC make it private accountable to only itself and every Swamp parasite will be $ucking money out of us.

I do think the US Attorney general needs to get involved and see who is paying bribes "Donation" to whom, and see just how quickly this privitization thing disappears. The dark creatures of the SWAMP like the night some light on them and they hide away.

Posted by: max Mason | November 26, 2017 11:55 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Beeson
1- "not compromised on a fincial basis" can not be done. If such language were included in the bill it give the priovatized company carte blanche to increase fees at will using that caveat.

2- In world I live in the Private Capital Markets have no interest in funding companies that that by U.S. Law Prohibit Profits ( in case you forgot privatizing the ATC would be a NON-PROFIT ONLY activity)

3- GA pays its fair share now through taxes ( which I don't belive will go away with privatization of the ATC).

4-The average cost of homes in my city (Plano, Tx) is north of 350K, but of the hundreds of thousands of GA aircraft in operation today a very small percentage cost that much and most cost FAR LESS (those costing more are generally for commercial purposes and pay additional fees to do so). Most GA aircarft owners I know fly 50-100 hours a year and spend nost of their expendable income to do so. After spending money ( they had not expected to pay when they bought their planes years ago ) to be able to fly in the NextGen system in 2020 there is really not enough left to pay new fee's ( ie your seat per mile charge you say is coming and landing fees). Most pilots are currently avoiding airports that have started charging landing fee's if at all possible.
Looking on the bright side Mr. Beeson you should be able to pick up a good GA aircraft on the cheap if privatization happens.

5- GA in the US is Alive and Well. GA in the UK/Europe us almost dead (do to the landing fees and seat per mile fees from privatization). NO COMPARISON.
Lets keep GA Alive and Well.
Thanks,
J.R. Bridges III
Plano, Texas

Posted by: J BRIDGES | December 6, 2017 5:36 PM    Report this comment

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