Privatization: A Thousand Times No


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.