The Case for Privatizing Air Traffic Control

In a guest editorial in the March issue of AOPA Pilot, the monthly publication of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, U.S. Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA) laid out his case for privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system (ATC).

Rep. Shuster, the Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and one of the main drivers of privatization in Congress, is described as a strong supporter of general aviation (GA), according to an editorial sidebar to his piece. He had requested the opportunity to share with AOPA members his thoughts on how privatization might help GA.

Here I summarize his points, and I do so in the interest of a fair dialogue (to read his editorial, follow the link at bottom).  I’ve covered this topic previously both here and in the HN eNewsletter, mostly presenting the case against privatization. Given the present climate of political and social polarization in the country I felt it important to give a dispassionate description of the reasons why some favor privatization. And then present reasons showing why they won’t work.

Rep. Shuster starts out with a nod to the good ole American spirit, and how pioneering men and women used their talent, hard work, determination, and grit to create an industry that moves the world. In this context he states that reforming the FAA is essential to bringing the aviation system into the modern era.

He then talks about the benefits of the bill he and co-sponsor, Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), introduced last year – H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act. The legislation proposes several reforms:  1) streamline the certification process, 2) address inconsistent regulatory oversight, and 3) separate the provision of air traffic services from the safety regulator (FAA).

Citing the FAA as the massive bureaucracy that it is, Shuster criticizes the so-called 1950s-era technology that is still in use. However, while some may agree with that view I would firstly remind you that due to the requirement for extremely small margins of error, computer hardware, software, and communication technologies have only been robust enough for use in aviation since the early 1990s.

Secondly, other areas of ‘modern’ technology suitable for aviation have only been in use for about twenty years: The first generation GPS satellite constellation became operational in the early 90s, and has been continually upgraded such that it is consistent and reliable enough (i.e., certified) for use in aircraft navigation and control. Ground-based navigation via VORs, VORTACs, and NDBs are gradually being phased out and will eventually disappear entirely. Control towers have been slowly updating and upgrading to digital technology and associated software over the past 15 years. Virtual towers are being tested in numerous locations and will soon be certified, increasing overall efficiency within the system while helping control costs.

At the same time as tower equipment and GPS are being modernized, aircraft are currently being equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast transmitters and receivers. Commonly referred to as ADS-B, this equipment is to be installed in all aircraft and determines that aircraft’s position by GPS satellites. Broadcasting aircraft positions allows controllers and pilots in the cockpit to track their own position as well as nearby aircraft, thus increasing the overall level of situational awareness and safety.

The above mentioned technologies fall under the NextGen project, which refers to the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, a comprehensive overhaul of the existing system and which the FAA has targeted 2025 for full implementation. ADS-B is a cornerstone of the system and equipage is due to be completed on all aircraft by December 31, 2020. Any aircraft not in compliance after that date will be grounded until their equipment is installed.

So in contrast to Rep. Shuster’s contention, the FAA is gradually replacing outdated equipment as technology continues to advance. Still, given budgetary constraints and the logistics of replacing equipment on such a massive scale, transitioning from a ground-based system to one that is satellite-based does not happen overnight. In addition, this transition is taking place while maintaining the highest level of safety for the commercially flying public as well as general aviation operators.

In my view, given the sheer size and complexity of the National Airspace System and the number of airports (nearly 6,000) and flights involved, the complete replacement of such a massive amount of equipment and technology — not to mention training on the new equipment — occurring within a span of about 30 years does not seem unreasonable.

Removing the current system from the FAA’s responsibility will only further delay the full implementation of NextGen. Placing this project in the hands of a brand-new entity is fraught with uncertainty and carries the likelihood of higher rather than the lower costs that some privatization proponents claim.

Rep. Shuster goes on to assure us that user fees will never be a part of the new entity, and that piston and non-commercial turbine aircraft will continue to pay for the system as they have been — through fuel taxes. He further states that “GA access to the National Airspace System will never be limited under my watch,” saying that the airspace system belongs to the American people and the FAA would regulate it and be held accountable.

Well, the reality is that the new entity is to be governed by a board of directors whose number has fluctuated with varying proposals but currently stands at 13, with supposedly equal representation of all sectors of aviation. However, I believe Rep. Shuster is being somewhat disingenuous in describing the board as equitable to all aviation interests because 4 or 5 of the 13 are slated to be airline representatives and as such would lobby hard for anything and everything that would favor their interests over all others. And if there’s one thing the airlines are good at, it’s lobbying.

Despite supposed oversight by the FAA, it’s not hard to imagine that when the new corporate ATC entity is no longer “under his watch,” it will tilt in favor of the airlines both in terms of who foots the bill and in potential access (or lack thereof) to the national airspace system.

In a recent survey, the National Business Aviation Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Alliance for Aviation across America, flight schools, air ambulance services, and numerous other general aviation operators expressed their opposition to privatization. Those in favor include the airlines and some within FAA, though significantly, not Administrator Michael Huerta.

Those who favor the current system believe that the FAA is doing many things very well, and rather than spend an unknown but likely huge amount of taxpayer dollars to create a new and untested entity, a reliable and consistent, long-term funding level by Congress would go a very long way toward fixing what’s wrong within the FAA as well as maintaining forward momentum on its NextGen implementation.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Contributing Author & Technical Support
Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association

Sources:
1. The Case For Reform. U.S. Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA). Guest Editorial in AOPA Pilot, March 2017. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/march/pilot/the-case-for-reform