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Pros and Cons of Privatized Air Traffic Control

Flying from Point A to Point B? Thank an air traffic controller for making that possible. Air traffic controllers help pilots navigate through increasingly crowded skies, providing much-needed coordination while reducing the risk of accidents.

While there’s little question that air traffic controllers are important, there is currently much debate about who should employ them. Currently, air traffic controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a government agency. However, there’s a push for air traffic control to be privatized — that is, run by an independent organization that reports to the FAA.

A bill for privatization (H.R. 4441) has been moved out of committee but has seen no action in the House. It calls for the creation of the ATC Corporation, “a federally chartered, not-for-profit corporation,” and says that the Department of Transportation will transfer operational control of FAA air traffic services to the corporation by Oct. 1, 2019.

The Case for Privatization

  • Most of the airlines are for it: Airlines for America (A4A), the primary lobbying group for airlines, has been pushing for privatization for many years. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said “We need to get ATC reform done” at a recent industry gathering. At the same event, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said privatizing air traffic control is the industry’s top issue. (Note: Delta is the only major airline standing against privatization.)
  • The union is for it: The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents more than 19,000 air traffic control professionals, supports privatization as long as the plan maintains existing work protections, pay levels, retirement benefits and healthcare benefits.
  • It works in other countries: Privatization has already proven effective in other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, proponents including the airlines and A4A would like to adopt a system that’s nearly identical to Canada’s. There, a privately run, not-for-profit organization called Nav Canada operates the country’s entire air traffic control network. It is fully accountable to Transport Canada, a government agency.
  • It might speed up adoption and implementation of NextGen: Already underway but progressing slowly, NextGen is the FAA’s initiative to modernize the entire national aerospace control infrastructure. The biggest change with NextGen is a shift from radar to GPS. Supporters of privatization complain that the transition has taken too long and has been too expensive, and that a private contractor could do the work quicker and more efficiently.

    The Case Against Privatization

  • Fliers may have to pay more: Delta Air Lines, which has repeatedly stated its opposition to privatization, conducted a study in 2015 that says privatization will increase user fees by 20 percent to 29 percent. The study looked at Canada and the United Kingdom, which are both cited as positive examples of privatization, and found that user fees increased there.
  • Private jet owners and operators are not on board: The National Business Aviation Association says that airlines will have an oversized influence on any new, privatized organization, which may limit private jets’ access to airspace and airports.
  • The U.S. system might be too big and complex: In 2014, there were 9.6 million airline departures in the U.S. That’s three times as many as the second-biggest aviation market, China, according to Bloomberg. Canada’s system, widely cited as an example, only handles 1.3 million departures a year. This raises the question of whether the U.S. system is too big to effectively be transferred to private control — which is open to debate.
  • It might be disruptive: Critics say passing control from the FAA to a private organization could stall progress on the NextGen infrastructure.
  • The current system is proven: The U.S. Government Accountability Office says that current operations are already considered to be the biggest, most complex and safest ATC system in the world.

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