Privatization: A Thousand Times No

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I got a haircut this week so my special interest hat fits just right. Also, my choir robe is back from the cleaners to I can preach in the full resplendence of sartorial perfection. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to yammer briefly about the bid for ATC privatization that popped up—to no one’s particular surprise—in the draft budget President Trump revealed to the voting public this week.

Will this profoundly bad idea come any closer to fruition than it has in the past? No one really knows, but the stars are more aligned than they ever have been. With a Democratic president in the White House, the chances of a successful privatization bill were lower because Democrats are seen to be the party of big government. Republicans, however, animated by groups like the Reason Foundation, which never met a government function it didn’t want to privatize, are big on so-called 3Ps—public-private partnerships. Breaking ATC out of the FAA as a discrete corporation isn’t quite that, but it’s in the same corral.

But congress, even a Republican congress, is to homogeneity what politics in general is to truthiness. Which is to say there isn’t a hell of a lot of it. Regardless of the tribe, congress people like to retain control and oversight and the very word “independent” makes them recoil in horror. They’re not the only ones. No sooner had the budget been parsed than press releases opposing it fell like snowflakes from the aviation alphabets.

While it seems like a knee-jerk reaction, it’s also the appropriate one. The more I learn about the prospect of privatization in the U.S. context, the more horrible it sounds. I like the idea of shaking things up and pursuing new ideas and I’m not philosophically opposed to the concept of privatization. In certain areas of government services, you can imagine benefits from the efficiencies of non-governmental operations. But ATC isn’t one of them.

In my view, it’s not about the money general aviation would have to pay in a privatization scheme nor the money the industry might or might not save. It’s about access and access of two kinds. The simple kind of using airspace and the darker kind of access to the decision-making process. Anyone who believes the so-called “independent” board overseeing ATC Inc. wouldn’t be entirely dominated by the airlines is delusional. Why do you think they’re salivating over the prospect of cozy, in-house control of the air traffic structure? So they can remake it in the image they consider ideal and if that includes shutting out GA wherever and whenever they please, that’s exactly what would happen. I’m sure the airlines would try the same thing with the budding UAS industry.

Recall what happened last summer when ALPA tried to screw us on the Third Class medical relief bill. They protested it for “safety reasons.” And that wasn’t even the airline companies, but the pilots. To be fair, it was the pilots’ union leadership. Many of its own members opposed that harebrained stunt to argue against the medical bill because it hurt many of their own rank and file.

You don’t need me to give you a reading list of successes and failure in P3s. Suffice to say, they’re neither universally successful nor universally losers. The ostensible argument in favor of an ATC Corp. is that it would be more efficient and, if allowed to fund itself, it would address the perennially broken process of uncertain FAA funding from year to year, which plays havoc with capital investment programs and even staffing. If you could force yourself to believe the bill authorizing such a thing would keep the sticky fingers of congress out of its actual funding and running, maybe you could believe it would work. I can’t so I don’t.

Would privatized ATC kill GA? No, it wouldn’t. GA has survived against stiff headwinds for so long that I’ve come to believe nothing can kill it. It’s so fueled by passion and dedication that GA in some form will always exist. In a world where people write checks for $900,000 airplanes, there will always be some kind of market. But user fees and lack of access would just hasten the shrinkage of what broad base remains of the industry, it would stress airports and generally just make thing worse. And for what? That’s the kicker. There’s no clear benefit in privatizing, maybe even if you’re Delta or American Airlines.

So call your representative and tell him to kill this turkey before it ever reaches the legislative stage. I’ll be doing same myself. Here’s the directory.  

Comments (29)

To see to future of a private ATC, all you have to do is look at the U.S. Post Office. It is supposed to be an independent business, but Congress can't help but meddle in their operations to the point that it barely functions. Any attempt the post office makes to modernize or reduce costs by stopping Saturday deliveries is thwarted by some congress person. Meanwhile, the cost of a stamp keeps climbing and the service keeps dropping. Perhaps not a perfect comparison, but probably close enough. The airlines should be careful what they wish for.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 18, 2017 11:51 AM    Report this comment

This is going to sound funny coming from a Canadian--after all, we love our socialised medicine--but we've had privatised ATC up north for over 20 years, and it seems OK. I fly a lot IFR between Canada and the US, and find no real difference in skill or service between Canadian and US controllers. (Of course, I'd love not to have to pay the ~US$60/year Nav Canada user fee, but it's only a minor annoyance.)

That's not to say that they won't mess up the privatisation down south in the US; just that it's not inevitable.

Posted by: David Megginson | March 18, 2017 3:21 PM    Report this comment

David, thanks for the infusion of common sense and maturity.

By the way, of course the cost of postage is increasing - that's to be expected, but I don't understand why people say the service is so bad. My experience is that the service is very good. Items are tracked now and they are arriving faster than ever. I guess people just love to gripe..

Posted by: Ken Keen | March 18, 2017 4:51 PM    Report this comment

Ya know ... it's not fair to those of on THIS side of the computer screens to read your first paragraph here and not actually SEE what your freshly cleaned "sartorial splendor" and "do" looks like. Have you ever considered putting your picture up there next to your name ... kinda like they do in magazines? We could all have a good laugh.

Carrying the discussion of the last blog one step further, thank goodness there's no privacy involved with squawking Mode S ES ADS-B. Think of it. We could go to the FAA website to check to ensure it's working right and there'd be a link right there to the private ATC website. All we'd have to do is insert our credit card and personal info and they could charge us for everything we do. Why ... we wouldn't even be landed and the debit will have already taken place. Sweet.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 18, 2017 6:48 PM    Report this comment

Ken, I'm glad your postal service is good. Half the time our letters arrive mangled from the ill-adjusted sorting machines at the post office. We also routinely get our letters in our neighbors' boxes and vice versa. Recently we got half a check returned to us from somewhere in north Texas from a bill we were paying here in Houston. The postal service sent a "sorry about that" note along, but it had obviously gone far astray before being shredded. We have complained to the local postmaster who kind of shrugs and says it is hard to find good help.

I don't expect similar performance from a privatized ATC, but, as Paul says, Congress cannot bear to lose control of any government operations. At some point, they will meddle with the "improved" ATC Corp. and it will not go well. The Canadian experience cannot necessarily be duplicated down here. We have many times more aircraft volume, both for commercial and especially GA aircraft. I'm glad their system works for them, but I fear we will not be able to achieve similar results - there's just too many politics that will get in the way.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 19, 2017 1:40 AM    Report this comment

I too have little doubt that a privatized ATC would function just as well as our current one. After all, the FSS system seems just fine, within the limits of their brief. Ane really, so does the Post Office.

Likewise, the spectre of being "shut out" by the airlines seems a little overblown. GA operations, at least MY GA, the bug-smasher variety, doesn't really impact airlines that much, and I expect and accept that when I do conflict with jet operations the big guy gets to go first. That's how it works now. For attempts to ban GA from airports & airspace we have to depend on our influence with our elected officials, again just like it works now.

Where the angst factor really kicks in is in the financing realm. A Canada-style yearly flat rate at somewhere in their price range? No problem. An al la carte approach where my IFR flight is priced the same as the B777's? Big, BIG problem!

Posted by: John Wilson | March 19, 2017 8:46 AM    Report this comment

We now have many contract towers in Cl D airspace. I find them to be most helpful and service oriented. FSS works within expectations, although it did have some initial problems. Can a privatized ATC work as well. The devil is in the details.

That being said, the present system works well also. There are a few exceptions in some local TRACONs where they are just out right nasty. Presently, the ATC system has been hampered by ridiculous hiring restrictions that have been in place for a few years. The "system" decided to change how candidates were hired and pushed people who did not have a good chance of completing the process over people who already had training and or experience.

I guess the success of the ATC system really depends on who is watching the hen house. As with any complex system, all parts have to be properly integrated to meet the mission at hand. Is Congress even capable of making those kinds of decisions? We just have to look at NextGen to see examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | March 19, 2017 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Really good write-up Paul. I totally agree.

Here is a supporting article by the NYTimes dated Feb. 15, 2016.

Don't Privatize Air Traffic Control


"Some Republicans in the House have come up with a solution in search of a problem: privatizing air traffic control. Democrats, the Obama administration and sensible Republicans ought to oppose this measure, which would do nothing to improve the present, federally operated system and indeed could make it worse."

Continue reading the main story.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 19, 2017 11:54 PM    Report this comment

In 1975 I taught American students at a small tower-controlled airport near Nuremburg, Germany. I'm not sure whether the fees were from a government system or a privatized one, but we were charged for each touchown. The student fee was half that of certificated pilots. What did we do? We got VERY close to landing during pattern work. The controllers only counted actual touchdowns, so we could use their services for hours for free as long as we didn't touch down. This DID result in students gaining considerable skill in slow flight and go-arounds. I am not a fan of privatization because I believe that general aviation will become the tree upon which the funding grows.

Posted by: C Babis | March 20, 2017 7:37 AM    Report this comment

Privatization and fees are not synonymous. Nothing stops government ATC from charging by the mile or landing and nothing says privatized ATC will. While one may have a greater or lesser effect on GA I suggest the impact is minimal. The cost difference to whomever pays can be substantial. Look at SQL vs PAO. The former is Serco staffed (private contractor) and the latter FAA staffed. Now compare costs. The latter is far more costly. Controllers there are more in number and paid more. Some would argue service is better at PAO but others (such as myself) would argue SQL could get by untowered much like PAKT does and SQL is less busy and doesn't even have airliners.

As for airlines squeezing out GA, look at SFO vs SQL or PAO all in the same area. Big airplanes go to the former and little ones go to the latter two. They don't compete for the same airspace or approaches especially when it comes to VFR. In fact one can fly into SQL or PAO without ever talking to ATC except their respective towers. I can even recall cases where I was able to easily fly over the top of all the airliners without any clearance needed and land at SQL while all the airilners were held on a ground stop for fog.

Paul, I just don't see your case.

Posted by: FILL CEE | March 20, 2017 8:24 AM    Report this comment

Same sh*t, different day! Who's gonna pay? Who's gonna benefit?

Trump told airlines that he supports privatizing America's air traffic control system.

Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America, said after the White House meeting that Trump was "on track" to support a bill to privatize ATC. And disrupting General Aviation. Not a good idea for GA, I think. However, a good idea for the following.

ATA Airline Members

* Alaska Airlines, Inc. ( AS)
* American Airlines, Inc. ( AA)
* Atlas Air, Inc. ( 5Y)
* Federal Express Corporation (FX)
* Hawaiian Airlines (HA)
* JetBlue Airways Corp. ( B6)
* Southwest Airlines Co. ( WN)
* United Airlines, Inc. ( UA)

Fees in the making for GA.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 20, 2017 8:59 AM    Report this comment

We seem to be confused down here in the states.

Collectively we think the government cannot do anything right. Yet when it is proposed that government functions are turned over to private industry all hell breaks loose.

By the way, we are all for greater transparency. Until stuff gets revealed and the discloser's are considered to be traitors.

We have met the enemy. He are us.

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 20, 2017 9:00 AM    Report this comment

Actually a very good point Jeff Land! One way or another, you're never going to make everyone happy, as the saying goes.

Posted by: Joe Braddock | March 20, 2017 10:27 AM    Report this comment

C. Babis "I'm not sure whether the fees were from a government system or a privatized one, but we were charged for each touchown."

We were flying a Cessna Caravan from Weiner-Neustad to Italy. When we arrived, we paid all of the fees. On departure, we filed IFR to our destination in Italy. Upon asking for our clearance, Tower said "Please to shut down and return to the tower." We complied--and asked what the problem was. "Your papers are not in order" he replied, in his German accent--evoking the sinister line from every Nazi movie. "Her iss zumzing wrong vit your papers. (As it turned out, the ATC system couldn't accept a direct routing sector between the airway sectors). He motioned to the 3 policemen, who said that we owed the government money. I produced receipts for the enroute fees we had paid, the landing fees, the parking fees, and the weather briefing fees.

The controller interpreted "Zat iss not enough--you owe a security fee to the government." He went on to explain that in Germany, the local police are dispatched to count the number of takeoffs and landings (even on a private airport) and a fee is assessed. I paid the fee, and the controller used another of the sinister-sounding Nazi-genre lines--"Your papers are in order, you may go now." I burst out laughing--he asked why. I explained the movie lines to him--he apologized--he got the joke, but then said "I vas just following orders." I didn't press my luck by trying to explain that line.

Multiple fees for every required "service"--total government control---think it can't happen here? By coincidence, today I received yet another "fee" invoice for landing at Regina, Canada (the model the privatizers want to emulate) on JANUARY 14--two months and one week ago. It consists of an "infrastructure levy for $4.50--an "International waste" fee of $3.15 (though there was no waste involved), a landing fee of $26.82, and to insult to injury, a GST on all of the above for $1.72--a total of $36.19--payable in Canadian funds. That means I have to call them and give them my credit card, and pay a foreign transaction fee on it. I'll have to wait until the next billing cycle to see how much to charge back the using department of the company. That's in addition to the ramp fee already paid ($40.00) and the "Navigation fee" of $84 from the 1 hour each way I was in Canadian airspace.

The proponents of "user fees" like to mention "but that's the way the rest of the world does it!" Perhaps it has escaped their attention that the "rest of the world" doesn't begin to have the air traffic volume that we have--their system has virtually eliminated general aviation. Is this what we want in our air traffic control system? Perhaps yet another one of those sinister lines from the old Nazi films is in order--one guaranteed to inspire fear--"Ve haf VAYS of making you (talk) WALK!

Posted by: jim hanson | March 20, 2017 11:06 AM    Report this comment

ATC answers the radio and tells me where to go. When I was furloughed during the last government shutdown ATC still answered the radio and told me where to go. Does the government really want to give up that control? If privatized, will unions have a major influence whether services continue during negotiations? Police officers aren't supposed to strike but I recall a serious epidemic of Blue Flu one year in a major city's PD. WRT to user-fees, the US Treasury already gets a piece of the fuel tax for every 100LL drop I burn. I doubt they'd do away with the fuel tax. I suspect the user fees will then be needed just to meet the overhead payroll to implement the collection process and build the IT infrastructure to make the collection process work. If the FAA thinks they can provide better customer service by contracting out ATC services similar to Flight Service fine, but DON'T give up control to an "independent" board. On a side note: if privatized can that civilian organization take enforcement action against pilot violations? Could be an interesting legal jousting.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | March 20, 2017 3:06 PM    Report this comment

Jim -

"Multiple fees for every required "service"--total government control---think it can't happen here?"

I think you're confusing "total government control" with "total private control". We already have "total government control" of the airspace and take-off/landing rights. It was set up long ago to serve the public, including GA pilots. As you've surely noticed, the government system here in the U. S. A. does not impose all those fees you were forced to pay in Germany.

Paul and others are worried about the prospect of "total private control" and the anti-GA rules and fees that is might entail.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | March 20, 2017 3:15 PM    Report this comment

Rollin--I was referring to the "user fees"--which ARE imposed by the government and/or the "government corporation."

The Canadian system (like much of the world) features "unbundling"--instead of paying for landing fees, "waste fees", ramp fees, and "infrastructure levies" as part of fuel taxes--each airport authority (government) is free to assess their own fees. I had to call the Regina Airport Authority (again, government).

Nav Canada is a government corporation--much like the post office--and we are forced to pay them.

The German example of having 3 policemen out to count the number of takeoffs and landing are certainly "government."

Unbundling in the U.S. would certainly result in more user fees. I think we can all agree those fees assessed this way are anti-GA. I'm not against user fees--only the way they propose to collect them. I'm normally VERY "anti-government"--but collecting cost recovery through fuel taxes is the most democratic way of recovering the non-public share of the costs--it has virtually NO overhead costs to administer. It is "environmentally friendly" by promoting fuel consumption to decrease costs--with those who use the most fuel paying the most ("paying their fair share"). It just makes sense to collect the costs this way.

Posted by: jim hanson | March 20, 2017 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Jeff Land is right on the money.

The GA community is getting a unexpected civics lesson. The government is not inherently "good" nor "bad", but responds to what people in power decide is "good" and "bad" (with conflicting definitions resulting in compromises). Back when the current air traffic system was set up, airlines were smaller and GA was bigger and the country felt generous, so (I'm speculating) GA got a pretty good deal on fees and access to services. Things slid along for decades, and everyone took the status quo for granted.

Now the airlines are much bigger and more powerful, and the get-the-government-off-the backs-of-businesses forces are stronger than ever. So it should be no surprise that the main users of the air traffic system want to control it for their benefit, nor that the current administration is willing to shake things up for the benefit of the people they listen to. It's up to the little GA guys and their alphabet groups to stick up for themselves as best they can. Like Paul says, call/write your Congresspersons.

The GA community has also gotten a not-too-unexpected lesson in politics. Some people assumed that since Mr. Trump flew around in his own 757 & helicopters, that he'd understand and promote the interests of spam can drivers. A better indication was his campaign's response to AOPA's questions about his positions on issues of interest to GA: no response. That should have been a clue right there. The Clinton campaign responded with lots of pandering platitudes. Lots of GA people didn't believe them, but it was an opening for us to exert some influence. As it turns out, we currently have no discernable voice in the administration.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | March 20, 2017 4:22 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to your closing paragraph, but my employer--Delta Air Lines--is the lone network airline OPPOSED to the privatization of ATC. They have posted a white paper on such on their website.

Posted by: SCOTT SPRINGATE | March 20, 2017 5:41 PM    Report this comment

Scott, your employer, DELTA AIRLINES, is CORRECT.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 20, 2017 6:03 PM    Report this comment

Scott, you're right. I've should have noted the exception.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 21, 2017 5:29 AM    Report this comment

Jim Hanson -- sorry to hear about your problem at Regina. I used to have a similar problem flying into Teterboro a few years back. The FBO couldn't collect my landing fee, so I'd get a bill in the mail for US $17 (IIRC) a few weeks later. Unlike Regina, TEB wouldn't take credit cards over the phone; they wanted me to mail a cheque. Since I don't have a chequing account at a US bank, I used to have to go and buy a money order in US funds, put it in an envelope, and mail it to them each time. I figure out must have cost them $50-100 to collect that $17 every time.

So annoying fees aren't just a problem everywhere else; they're already a problem in the US, too. Of course, you'll tell me it's because I flew into TEB, and you're right--I use HPN now, and all the headaches have disappeared. Likewise, there are lots of good Canadian airports that charge no fees at all (even for overnight parking): you just have to shop around.

Posted by: David Megginson | March 21, 2017 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Jim Hanson -- sorry to hear about your bad experience at Regina. I've had similar hassles in the US with Teterboro (except that they wouldn't even accept a credit card over the phone, so I had to mail a money order).

Fortunately, both Canada and the US have lots of better airports if you shop around a bit. Many Canadian airports have no fees at all, even for overnight parking (like at CYGK--Kingston, ON). For flying into NYC, I've switched from TEB to HPN, and am much happier.

Posted by: David Megginson | March 21, 2017 10:02 AM    Report this comment

I generally don't mind reasonably-priced FBO facility fees (i.e. parking fees), as that's a type of "user fee" that actually makes sense, and I know what it's going toward. I can also choose the FBO I go to, and if there's one that has unreasonable fees, I can go elsewhere on the airport (at least, assuming there is an "elsewhere" to go to).

Generic airport fees are a little less tolerable, but to a certain degree, I can understand what drives them. And again, I can also choose to go to a different airport, assuming there is another one within a reasonable distance (which is usually the case, at least in the northeast).

But ATC service per-use fees are not acceptable. I'm already paying for ATC services as a tax-payer (the little they get from the general fund) and as a powered aircraft pilot (through fuel taxes), and except for airports in class G or E airspace, I can't choose to use a different ATC provider. ATC is a general transportation infrastructure and as such benefits everyone.
The only way I could see it as acceptable is as a reasonable (up to $120/yr) one-time-yearly fee. But then that raises the question is it per-aircraft or per-pilot? That is, how would club/rental/partnership arrangements work? And what would the administrative costs be if it's anything more than per-aircraft, which would inevitably require more overhead to manage.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 21, 2017 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Cut ATC costs by streamlining the FAA.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 21, 2017 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Put ATC management in the trenches. Let them work traffic.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 21, 2017 12:21 PM    Report this comment

A common phenomenon is in evidence herein: kneeboard-jerk reactions, in which speculations become presumptions that quickly supplant reality.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | March 21, 2017 3:09 PM    Report this comment

David Megginson--thanks for responding. The problem is not limited to Regina. I regularly use Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Red Lake, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Ft. Francis, Thompson, and Churchill--as well as a number of smaller airports. Each of the named airports has the problem with not being able to pay the fees at the time they are incurred--none of them process the payment for 10 days to 2 weeks, so I can't look up the payment equivalent in U.S. dollars for a minimum of one(and as much as 3 months. Same with the Nav-Canada fees.

Just saying'--user fees are not efficient (for the pilot OR for the country). Collecting fees via fuel tax is simple, fair, and equitable--those that use the most fuel pay the most.

Something for the "fact finding mission" to Canada--Canadian controllers make far, far less than U.S. controllers--but do the very same functions. I don't think that U.S. controllers will agree to work at the same rate as their Canadian counterparts.

Privatization--I'm all for it. Much as we didn't like Lockheed-Martin, they have provided good FSS functions (even as those functions have diminished in an internet world)--and at less cost than the government can do it. Contrast that with Canada--at Kenora, Churchill, and Thompson, there is an FSS on the field--yet you can no longer go there to look at charts or get info from a briefer directly. Private ATC towers are indiscernible from government towers--but operate for far, far less.

Between the ATC charges, multiple user fees, and TSA requirements, the cross-border traffic is a fraction of what it was before these changes went into effect. That hurts Canadian FBOs and businesses--and seriously degrades the utility of U.S. aircraft operators, who no longer fly into Canada. Let's make sure the "fact-finding" mission hears from the FBOs on both sides of the border, Canadian tourist businesses, and aircraft owners who would like to fly into Canada.

Privatize--but keep the present funding system. Less money will disappear down the government administrative rat hole.

Posted by: jim hanson | March 22, 2017 4:11 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Jim Hanson. You fly a bit further west than I do, so I don't have a lot of overlap. I have landed in Winnipeg once and Thunder Bay twice, and I don't remember getting any bills in the mail from them afterwards, but it's been a few years. COPA's "Places to Fly" lists a $10 landing fee for Winnipeg, but none for Thunder Bay. Some other decent Ontario airports with ILS approaches and no landing fees include CYYB North Bay, CYXU London, and CYGK Kingston. If you're OK with non-precision IFR approaches, then the list gets much longer.

Posted by: David Megginson | March 22, 2017 8:52 PM    Report this comment

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