What Can the Public Possibly Know About ATC Privatization?

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“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.

Comments (37)

The same people who decide your legroom will now control your skies. Air travel only gets press when it does something wrong and a few carriers have had this press on an almost weekly basis. Add to this the occasional computer problem that shuts down a major airport and the general public must wonder why anyone would want to give more control to the airlines. Compared to the airlines the FAA is invisible.

Posted by: John Randall | June 20, 2017 7:00 PM    Report this comment

If the Congress isn't careful, they may create an aviation version of Amtrak; not a favorable outcome.

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | June 20, 2017 7:48 PM    Report this comment

Your column is a fabulous example of how challenging it is for those attempting to create unbiased surveys. As you discovered, creating simple surveys (the ones that get results) without some kind of bias - accidental or not happens more often than not.

Posted by: LARRY BAUM | June 20, 2017 8:54 PM    Report this comment

ATC User Fees? Wait ... I got it! Eureka! Go with the numbers. The domestic/international travelers (PAX) sum 857 million annually. Then there is the freight dog industry. Let them pay for all.

General Aviation, private and commercial, will help keep ATC safe, good practice makes better, by increasing operations where needed. Flight schools and independents would be contracted and paid to populate lonely controlled airspace and low level traffic towered airports. Win-Win for all. I'm definitely on a roll here - hold me back!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 21, 2017 12:26 AM    Report this comment

"Having written about this several times, I now realize my opposition to privatization relates less paying the money in fees than it does 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."

That pretty neatly sums up the whole argument. I'll just add that I don't so much fear outright denial of access to airspace as I do proxy-denial through unaffordable fees (unaffordable, unless you can buy an $800k+ aircraft outright, in which case you don't care). In other words, the de-democratization of public infrastructure (because even if it's privately controlled, it's still being used FOR public use), in the same way that money somehow counts as "free speech" (an oxymoron if I ever heard one, but that's a separate discussion).

You did lose me at "OECD", though. That's one I haven't heard of.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 21, 2017 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Money isn't free speech. But the right to free speech can become meaningless without a concommitant right to SPEND money to disseminate one's speech. Somewhere along the line, Leftists purposefully asserted that no one should be allowed to "speak louder" than anyone else, and that spending comprises a free-speech volume control.

As any of this relates to the current proposal to re-organize ATC, I think that:
1. The airlines absolutely deserve to be heard.
2. It's unlikely that the airlines will be the only voice to speak OR to be heard.

If anything, the coming swarm of pilotless vehicles will increase the stake of the Common Man in GA.

Right now, it costs 1/10th as much to register my plane, as it does to register my car. Pilot certificates are "free;" my driver's license renewal cost me $60. I would have a hard time criticizing an annual license fee for pilots, and a registration fee for aircraft - on the order of $100 each. Especially if it included no-additional-fee subscription access to navigation database updates.

I do NOT expect that whatever emerges will include a per-operation fee for light GA, because the cost of administering the billing would vastly exceed the revenue that would be collected.

So, I'm agnostic about this proposal - for now. I urge eschewing kneepad-jerk reactions to this evolving proposal.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 21, 2017 9:01 AM    Report this comment

In the 1990's, President Bill Clinton along with a Republican Congress let the jeanie out of the bottle when user fees were introduced for National Parks. Prior to that time there were no fees to visit a national park. Neither were there fees for FCC licenses or for a lot of other federal government services. I still have a restricted FCC radio license I received for free from the government in 1987. As the interest on the national debt increases, government agencies keep coming up with other ways to raise funds. With all this talk of user fees for aviation services I have yet to hear from Mr. Shuster's proposal if any of the fuel taxes or any other taxes used for aviation will be reduced. My guess is they won't be reduced. This entire deal is just a fancy way to raise more funds, not to improve anything! And the privatization of the postal service, conrail, amtrak, or even FSS's, has not resulted in any improvement of those services. Nowhere else in the world is there an aviation system as large or as complicated as in the US. Privatizing ATC in the US is just a disaster waiting to happen.

Posted by: matthew wagner | June 21, 2017 9:43 AM    Report this comment

OECD= Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.

For industrialized countries, it basically the first world.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 21, 2017 9:56 AM    Report this comment

I applaud Trump's desire to cut costs, but privatization of ATC is stupid and will result in restricted access to airspace and airports. The cost answer is to bust the NATCA labor union like Reagan did to PATCO in the 80's... AND eliminate 2/3 of the FAA management, which is very top heavy. The Controllers and the maintenance people actually doing the work are good people for the most part and their skills are a national asset - let's not distract them with politics, profit motives, or extra duties like weather observations.
Rich Thorne

Posted by: Rich Thorne | June 21, 2017 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Tom, for the life I me, I can't see how charging pilot $100 a year for license renewal is good public policy.

Let's do the math. Estimate active pilots at 400,000--that might be generous--and you raise $40 million. This on a $16 billion budget. Knock that back by 10 percent for administrative overhead. Why bother? Just for optics?

While I agree that $100 is trivial and I would probably pay it myself, for enough people it will be just the thing that pushes them over the edge, accelerating pilot erosion further. In that way, it's a negative multiplier and would likely do more than $40M in damage to the industry, at least initially. I'll concede it would eventually weed out the owners and pilots--call them deadwood--who are just hanging on.

All of the PPP proposals are based on pay-per-use fees. The only reason to believe ATC services wouldn't be is because it hasn't happened yet.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 21, 2017 11:17 AM    Report this comment

Letting the airlines run the ATC systems like like letting the drug companies and agra businesses run the FDA, or like having the fox in the hen house. The airlines will find a way, (user fees), to defray as much of the cost as possible to improve their bottom line. That will be the end of GA as we know it.

Posted by: BRIAN BURTON | June 21, 2017 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Brian, I agree with your 'end of GA' comment ... but isn't that also a 'Catch-22' situation? Where do pilots come from ... I'm pretty sure they don't grow on trees. At some point, airlines are going to have to start serious ab initio training if they hope to find enough pilots to point their aluminum tubes. And THAT isn't free, either. Right now, aspirants pay for their own training and work for a pittance in hopes of someday arriving at 'the big time. Without GA, that's all gone.

I know Airbus is planning on building and testing an autonomous airliner but -- disagreeing with Yars -- I do not see there EVER being a possibility that at least one professional pilot be on the flight deck ... two for long international flights. Imagine an errant Airbus A380Super going down because the pitot tubes froze up and drove the onboard FCC nuts and a remote operator in somewhereville trying to solve it via satellite. Numerous crashes of military drones flown under that scenario ensure that it'll never happen while I'm on the right side of the grass.

Pilots are ~0.01% of the population and that is in toto. Pilots with the necessary ratings, experience and hours are a smaller percentage. Anything that harms GA harms commercial aviation as well. I wish the numbskulls with all these crazy ideas could somehow "get" that. In much the same way as the FAA throttles manufacturers (and their lawyers) from concocting too many AD's (as opposed to light sport where they're free to do what they want), FAA's management of ATC ensures an operable system for all. Geez ... did I just stick up for the FAA?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 21, 2017 12:43 PM    Report this comment

Ooops ... ~0.001

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 21, 2017 12:50 PM    Report this comment

400,000 pilots, divided by 340,000,000 Americans equals 0.1176%.

For the record, frozen-over pitot tubes are inconsequential to a properly-designed Expert System. Carry on!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 21, 2017 1:29 PM    Report this comment

I have had some success explaining to my non-pilot friends that the ATC privatization proposal would be akin to giving the interstate highway system over to the trucking companies to manage and set fees/access policies for automobile drivers. We all paid for, and continue to pay for the highway infrastructure (ok, in case of the skies it was a God-given gift of open airspace), but just because someone wishes to make a business out of a public asset doesn't mean they get to "own" it (note that the legal meaning of "property" actually means that you have a right to determine its use and disposal; hence it becomes the airlines' property). And, with an airline stacked board, they would indeed own it for all intents and purposes.

If this is acceptable, then why not give the National Parks over to tour operators and casinos?

Posted by: A Richie | June 21, 2017 1:30 PM    Report this comment


As much as I'd like to believe that there will never be autonomous (or to Yars' favorite term, semi-autonomous) airliners, if there aren't enough military and GA pilots to fill their ranks and the unknowing public still demand cheap air travel, there may come a day where the airlines have no choice to survive.

The public also works against GA because they view all GA pilots--including those flying 70-year-old Cubs--as rich one-percenters who deserve to pay huge sums of money to fly their toys around. They don't care if that's where a lot of airline pilots come from, because they just assume they're all ex-military pilots.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 21, 2017 1:36 PM    Report this comment

In a perfect world, having a privately operated ATC system would probably work fine. In our less than perfect world, it will certainly be less than what was intended. Congress always starts out with good intentions when drafting legislation, but the end results usually end up like the old joke that a platypus is an elephant designed by comittee.

While not a perfect comparison, consider the cable TV industry. When it began, cable TV promised that for your monthly fee, you would get commercial free programing. Who could resist that? Today there are more commercials than you get on "free" TV, and the monthly cost just keeps climbing. Comcast makes billions while their customers complain about high prices and poor service.

However good the intentions may be for privatized ATC, the cost will climb and the service will deteriorate, especially for those (i.e. GA) who do not have adequate representation on the governing board. Oh, and don't worry about their ability to collect those "trivial" landing fees. Since we will all be equipped with ADS-B by then, the computer will record your every move and deduct it from your "account", just like the Easy Pass tags for the toll roads.

Posted by: John McNamee | June 21, 2017 2:56 PM    Report this comment

Gary: Just for the record, "semi-autonomous" is an oxymoron. But you knew that. ;-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 21, 2017 2:57 PM    Report this comment

I knew you'd like that one! :-)

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 21, 2017 3:56 PM    Report this comment

"Since we will all be equipped with ADS-B by then, the computer will record your every move and deduct it from your account".

Using the ICAO flight plan form that the FAA wants to convert to!

I would still like to know where all this additional traffic that ADS-B and "privatization" will allow will land at. Most if not all of the most congested airports in this country are already at max capacity. Look at all the grief the nimby's are giving the FAA when routes are changed to increase efficiency. You think that is going away when proposals are made to build more runways? As I said before ATC privatization is a disaster waiting to happen.

Posted by: matthew wagner | June 21, 2017 6:52 PM    Report this comment

On Solutions, Compensatory Mitigation and User Fees. Let's not just bitch - generate solutions.

To help "Privatized ATC " make ends meet and to eliminate GAs financial burden, I suggest a $22 surcharge per airline ticket. 841 million travelers per year "donating" $22 each with cover the $19 billion budget. If that does not work then I suggest installing solar panels on hangars and between runways. Hail Trump! Acres and acres of the contraptions. Imagine the gain in revenues. Another Win-Win.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 21, 2017 8:50 PM    Report this comment

Assume 400,000 pilots, and 100,000 aircraft. At $100 each, the resultant $50 million would comprise 1/2 of 1% (0.5%) of the just-under $10 billion that the FAA spends annually on ATC. Sounds just about right, to me.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 22, 2017 10:31 AM    Report this comment

YARS, the PRINCIPAL ATC USER is the PAX. Weigh into them. Burdening GA will cause depleting GA and the USER FEE revenue. Burdening the PAX is the answer as the numbers increase, the airlines are not affected individually and GA continues as it is or is given a reprieve.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 22, 2017 11:12 AM    Report this comment

Just so I understand your take on this, do you think that 0.5% is unreasonable? Should GA's contribution be 0%? Something in between?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 22, 2017 11:49 AM    Report this comment

"Assume 400,000 pilots, and 100,000 aircraft. At $100 each..."

Does that 100,000 aircraft include the airlines, too? If it does, $100 seems cheap considering that the $100 in your proposal is the same $100 that a Piper Cub generates (which uses almost zero ATC services), and the same $100 that a 747 or A380 generates. If it doesn't, that seems even less fair.

"Burdening the PAX is the answer as the numbers increase, the airlines are not affected individually and GA continues as it is or is given a reprieve."

Isn't everyone on board a GA plane also a "passenger" of one sort or another? Or are we just talking about paying customers?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 22, 2017 12:30 PM    Report this comment

YARS: Yes, any "tax" burden is unreasonable. I would think that we recognize the need to revitalize General Aviation. Adding a "tax" burden to GA for income is like betting on a lame horse. GA is an unstable economic platform but an needed aviation contributor. It's the base of ATC and the airlines.

Read this:


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 22, 2017 12:46 PM    Report this comment

My cited numbers are exclusively light GA.
I'm suggesting that 99.5% of the ~$10 billion cost of ATC should be borne by the airlines and other commercial operations.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 22, 2017 1:01 PM    Report this comment

The current tax on fuel and other aircraft consumables IS a use tax. A 747 or A380 uses a whole lot of fuel and also a lot of ATC services, while a Cub uses little fuel and a small amount of ATC time (or none).

Sounds like a fair system to me. Why mess with a system that seems to work? If they need more revenue, they can always increase the tax rate after public review and agreement. User fees funding a private system can be finagled with no approval from the end users. Just ask the toll road operators.

Posted by: John McNamee | June 22, 2017 5:30 PM    Report this comment

We already pay user fees as a result of the last big privatization push with the increased fuel taxes. Use more, pay more. The fees talk is fog put out to obscure the battle. This is really about commercial interests wanting control of the airspace so they can manage it for their best interest, I.e. 'profits'. If you do not generate profits for them, your interests will not be represented in any but token ways. Although the private 'non profit' organization set up to take over for the FAA may not 'profit' directly, rest assured that those who are appointed to manage it, and those they represent, will profit handsomely. Be very careful people. The issue is much bigger than the FAA. We are putting people into our government bodies who are all too willing to sell or give your representation away.

Posted by: Samuel Cobb | June 23, 2017 5:36 AM    Report this comment

The problem with this whole thing is safety is compromised. All the other air traffic control systems in the world are Service based. That's what the airlines want. We are Safety based. They want to base it on NavCanada. Well NavCanada has a dime sized airspace compared to ours. Oh sure NATCA is all for it. Well let me explain a little on that. Their executive board is all for it. But the controllers who work the scopes are not. If they signed a bill today to privatize any controller who's eligible to retire would walk out the door. What they aren't telling you is the technical side of the house. NATCA thinks there's more money to be made. Sure by tossing out Technical ops. Tech Ops brings you those Lighted Nav Aids, those ILS's, those frequencies, radar, all those other nice things to have. Those people would be training Joe Schmoe to do their jobs at a quarter of the pay and once they are trained oops sorry now we have someone else cheaper. Take a look at Lockheed. Its what they did with flight services. Oh they want to give it back to the FAA because they haven't been able to make a whole lot of money off of it. There's many more reasons not to privatize. But let it be known that those of us who work in Tech Ops are mostly Veterans and we give a damn about the souls onboard those aircraft. They don't have a dollar figure to us... they are priceless.

Posted by: Lynda Bloomberg | June 23, 2017 6:22 AM    Report this comment

I am sorry but all i see here is a bunch of speculation and talking points. I cannot weigh in on whether privatization is good or bad until there is an actual proposal and some details. It could be good or bad for GA and then likely only certain classes of GA. show me some details and firm proposals so i can decide Please.


Posted by: Dwight Eisenhart | June 23, 2017 6:23 AM    Report this comment

By the time the "proposal" is completed the subsequent process will be impenetrable by the base of aviation - GA. There's no middle ground here, we'll be burdened and crying. GA will fail to gain.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 23, 2017 7:26 AM    Report this comment


There is a great deal of information out there.

First, I'd suggest downloading the House Transportation Committee (Shuster Committee) draft Bill HR 4441. Title II - ATC Corporation is the section that deals with privatization. After reading it you will likely have many questions.

Second, call DC and address your questions to the Transportation Committee staff. See how they answer them. As a trial question you can ask what happens to the GA fuel tax under the new system.

Third, download Airlines for America (A4A) president Nicholas Calio's testimony before congress making the airlines' case for privatization. Then review Mr. Calio's background and qualifications. Read about A4A's contribution to the authorship of HR 4441and Mr. Calio's legislative strategy.

Fourth, download Delta Airlines' press release explaining their withdrawal from A4A in 2016.

Fifth, look at the on-line reporting by "Politico" outlining the relationship between A4A and the House Transportation Committee - Politico is a left-leaning organization but the reporting is factual.

I guess that is enough for starters, Dwight. Please let us know what you find out.

Posted by: kim hunter | June 23, 2017 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Let me help:





Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 23, 2017 2:01 PM    Report this comment


apparently should be

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 23, 2017 2:23 PM    Report this comment

If reporting is fact based, what relevance does mentioning 'left-leaning' have?

I've heard back from both my Senators and Representative already in response from signing the form letter from EAA I recently received regarding the privatization of ATC. I would encourage all who oppose this action to do the same or write yours asap, for what it's worth.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 23, 2017 2:57 PM    Report this comment


Just saying "Politico" tunes out some of my friends. I included a PC disclaimer because their reporting really does deserve a look.

I'm 100% behind you on the EAA form letter. Personal letters work too.

Posted by: kim hunter | June 23, 2017 11:28 PM    Report this comment

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