ATC Privatization: Point/Counterpoint

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Canada Just Isn’t the Same as the U.S.

by Mark Baker

When Congress returns from summer recess in early September, they will consider a vote on H.R. 2997, the 21st Century AIRR Act, which would remove air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and turn it over to the airlines. Supporters of the bill often point to our neighbors to the north as a shining example of how ATC privatization is successful, and some in Canada, including our counterpart, are content with what they have. But with operations that are one-tenth the scale and complexity of the U.S.’s airspace system, comparing ourselves to Canada is a moot point.

Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., an outspoken critic of ATC privatization, said comparing American and Canadian air traffic is like “comparing an apple to a horseshoe; you can’t compare the two.” The congressman makes a valid point since Nav Canada deals with air traffic roughly equivalent to that of Houston and Dallas combined, far from the nearly 44,000 daily flights the United States ATC system handles.

The U.S. national airspace system works well and is the envy of the world. Why would we want to jeopardize that? Broken promises, staff shortages, a lack of access and a decline in general aviation is what the U.S. airspace system faces if we mirror our Canadian counterparts.

At Missouri’s annual Tarkio Fly-in, pilots spoke out against the negative consequences of a privatized ATC system. Ron Renz, a test pilot, aeronautical engineer and user of both systems, was unimpressed with what privatization has done in Canada. Renz said GA fees in Canada have gone up while traffic has gone down and virtually every small airport is suffering. He witnessed the decline of GA, saying, “Privatization has killed GA in Canada.”

Most countries that switched to a privatized system did not receive the intended benefits. According to a 2016 Delta Air Lines study, Canadian fliers faced a 59-percent increase in ATC fees on airline tickets and in the U.K., passengers saw a 30-percent jump following privatization. Additionally, the Delta study also found that since 1998, Canadian ATC has seen their revenue go up by around 21 percent while flight volume actually decreased by 16 percent. The U.S. Government Accountability Office also found that following privatization, many Canadian general aviation pilots in rural areas faced an increase in local fees because privatization there seemed like such a good idea that the nation privatized its airports too.

Following privatization, Canadian ATC has experienced staffing shortages that continue to affect access. In Canada, NOTAMs are issued periodically advising VFR traffic of delays, reroutes or declined clearance requests around the country’s busiest airports such as Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg during peak operations.

Temporary VFR bans aren’t that uncommon with the Nav Canada system. Just recently, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association spoke out about a ban on VFR flights at Vancouver International Airport restricting VFR arrivals, other than seaplanes and helicopters. “The Vancouver NOTAM is a special concern because its long continuous duration is unprecedented,” said COPA President and CEO Bernard Gervais. “COPA has been in contact with Nav Canada about the NOTAM and we’ve been assured that measures are being taken to correct the situation.”

Barry Powers, a pilot who frequently flies up North, said privatization has hurt GA in Canada because of the associated costs. “Now, they want to charge you for everything, they send a bill and it discourages people.” When discussing privatization in the United States, Powers said, “That would be a terrible idea. It [ATC] works well here.”

Handing over control of the skies to the airlines with unchecked power would be disastrous. Nearly every airline has filed for bankruptcy, and these are the ones that charge billions each year just so you can bring your luggage, the ones that want to reduce seat sizes even further, the ones that have an excruciatingly dismal customer service record, and the ones that can’t even handle computer glitches. How are they supposed to handle our entire airspace system and national security?

In addition to the broken promises, lack of access and decline of GA traffic, switching to an airline-dominated privatized system would add almost $100 billion dollars to the deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently announced. That money is better spent on updating our system with newer technology. We have a system that works for all users today, as proven by our safety record, and there’s no need to mimic Canada’s ATC model.

Mark Baker is president and CEO of the U.S.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

We Wouldn’t Go Back to Government ATC in Canada

by Bernard Gervais

So what’s it like to fly in a privatized Air Navigation Services (ANS) system? Not that bad actually. Probably just cheaper and simpler. ANS (or ATC) has been privatized in Canada for the last 20 years. I was not around and not even a pilot back then when it happened, but I quickly caught up on the history, from looking at our old clippings and reading through historical documents. At first COPA was against privatization, not knowing what the future held for our members and their GA aircraft. Understandably, because the ANS Act said, “Nav Canada’s charges in respect to recreational and private aircraft must not be unreasonable or undue.” That’s not the most reassuring piece of legislation you can find during a transition period. That left the door open to any type of speculation and a little apprehension amongst the aviation community.

Now, we know. Close to 30 percent of our members don’t even pay a single penny because their aircraft weigh less than 1360 lbs. The vast majority pay $66 per year and the heavier birds (more than 3000 kg or 6600 lbs.) pay a little more. All of this has continuously come down over the years. It’s also not costing the taxpayers anything, based on the user-pay model.

We have also noticed in the long run that there has not been any degradation of services for GA. The governance model in place is comprised of a board with four out of 15 positions being airlines-appointed. There is also 20-member Advisory Committee reporting to the board. It represents a broad spectrum of organizations with an interest in the ANS, half of which are GA associations. I sit on that committee.

What’s the typical use of the system? Whether VFR or IFR, you call up the 1-800 number, get a detailed weather briefing and then decide about filing your flight plan with the person now or later or it can be done electronically through any software like ForeFlight or Flight Plan. That’s it. Take off and your flight plan gets activated by ATC or at the time you said you would take off. Land and your plan gets closed by ATC. No need to call FSS. You get a bill once a year. Doesn’t cost anything to taxpayers.

There are certainly some things affecting GA, specifically VFR and IFR training flights. The system is not perfect. With a lot of retirement from the baby-boomer crowd, there are staffing issues around the five or six biggest airports in the country on sunny weekends or peak vacation periods, where service can temporarily be denied. These issues would be like trying to get into JFK or Atlanta VFR with your C-172 on a beautiful Saturday morning, or trying to shoot an approach at O’Hare during peak inbound traffic. There may be some delays or you may get turned away. Still, there is no reason why this should happen and the situation is being closely watched by the Advisory Committee and Nav Canada’s board.

So things are working out pretty good. Would anyone go back to a government-run system? No. Not everything is perfect, but our members all like the services and the system. It is one of the safest in the world, the governance model is just and fair, the fees are low (free for many) and we get great service, without costing taxpayers anything. Nav Canada has also been able to be innovative and is at the forefront of technology, as the major shareholder of Aireon (space-based ADS-B). With anticipated profits, is free ANS for all in Canada in the future? Perhaps.

Bernard Gervais is president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association.