What Can the Public Possibly Know About ATC Privatization?
“Those who try to lead the people can only do so by following the mob.” – Oscar Wilde
I can’t think of a better lead in for the latest round of polling that indicates—surprise—the general public opposes the idea of privatizing air traffic control. The latest run at plumbing public sentiment on this topic was done by the polling firm Hart Research Associates and the most predictable thing about the results is the round of press releases from the alphabets citing the findings.
But the data isn’t so categorical that it can’t be spun. While NBAA’s headline said, “CNBC Poll Reaffirms Americans' Opposition to Privatizing ATC,” The Morning Consult ‘s own survey found a “plurality” of voters favored privatization. While Consult bills itself as a non-partisan digital polling firm, we politicize everything from the color of our socks to the vegetables in school lunches. So, sure enough, the cross tabs show that Republicans favor privatization, Democrats oppose it.
But what do these poll respondents even know about this topic to have an informed opinion? Squat. Zero. Nada. Zip. I’m in the industry and consider myself fairly well informed and I can just muster an opinion based on probable fact. I say “probable” because by the time the airline lobbyists get done distorting whatever bill comes out of Congress, who knows what the terms of engagement will be? Further, the topic itself is a natural for ill-informed innuendo such as President Trump’s claim that the current ATC system is “horrible.” If we thought about it for a nanosecond longer, maybe we could explain that the FAA is hobbled by funding issues that keep it from meeting its infrastructure goals and might there be a better way? I know. That would require a level of cognition that seems to have gone out of fashion with the rise of the internet.
So. That leaves pollsters to massage the prose in a way that distracted survey takers can parse and answer. Can’t make it too complicated. And the question shouldn’t have innate bias. Here’s how Hart did it:
“There is a proposal to shift control of the U.S. air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, to a private, non-profit entity that would be governed by representatives of the major U.S. airlines and others. The FAA would have some oversight of this new entity, but would no longer manage the air traffic control system. Which of the following statements about this possible shift in control do you agree with more?”
Then it followed with the usual strongly favor, somewhat favor and so forth. To summarize, 53 percent responded that it was a bad idea, 33 percent said it was good. The rest said neither or not sure.
Morning Consult framed it this way: “As you may know, the U.S. air traffic control system is currently run by the federal government, through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Knowing this, do you support or oppose a plan that would establish an independent, not-for-profit corporation to run U.S. air traffic control, instead of the FAA?”
I don’t know about you, but I consider that prose intentionally anodyne. For a broadly uninformed reader—and on this subject, that’s probably most—it leaves out the potential bitter pill of the airlines running the thing. Even before United started beating its passengers, airlines weren’t especially warmly thought of. So no surprise the survey nets different results. Consult’s survey found 42 percent supported privatization, 32 percent opposed it and 27 percent had no opinion. I’m not suggesting Consult was fishing for a result, by the way, but merely dumbed down the question to make it more readable.
Previous polls on this topic have found opinions more in line with the Hart survey. Just over 50 percent to as high as 60 percent of respondents oppose privatization if they have some inkling that fees will be involved. But this goes to how poorly qualified people are to have an opinion on this topic. No one really knows if the airlines would pay more or less under a privatization program and how passengers would share these costs through fees of some kind. When fees are mentioned, opinions change.
One reason for this is something ingrained in the American character: We like services government provides, especially infrastructure, but we don’t like paying for these. One related question in the Hart survey revealed that this sentiment lives on.
“Many governments are partnering with private companies to pay for, build, and expand highways, airports, and other infrastructure projects. Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose these public-private partnerships?”
Interestingly, this question, which neatly left out the part about fees, netted the identical percentages found the ATC privatization question, but flipped: 53 percent favored privatization, 33 percent opposed it. I’m quite certain it’s because people think these public private partnerships will magically provide them new roads and bridges, with no tax increases and no tolls. But all of the PPP projects envision tolls or fees of some kind, just as ATC privatization does. We just call them user fees. How else would you attract the "private" in PPP without the profit motive?
In the U.S., voters tend to think they’re taxed to death and they—or so politicians seem to think—won’t tolerate tax increases of any kind. According to the Tax Policy Center, the U.S. ranks near the bottom for total tax load as a percentage of GDP among OECD countries. In the aggregate, the U.S. is 33rd among 37 countries, according to World Bank data. Other data places it a little higher, but usually in the lowest quintile for taxes as a percentage of GDP. Taxes from individuals are about at the OECD average. I have to wonder if voters who complain about taxes are perfectly OK with the tolls—user fees—they’ll see under PPPs. Do they draw a distinction? Do pilots? It's often said that tolls are taxes you aren't forced to pay and that's true. Unless you want to get to the other side of the river.
Having written about this several times, I now realize my opposition to privatization relates less to paying the money in fees than it does to potential denial of access to airspace and airports by an entity controlled by airline interests. While fees of any kind will likely worsen the downward spiral, lack of access would really tank activity.
I’m trying to approach privatization with an open mind, but I just can’t see the potential benefits. And neither, apparently, does an ill-informed public.