Time to privatize air traffic control?

Those favoring less government may be about to land a big one in their campaign. The government reportedly is considering getting out of the air traffic control business and turning it over to private industry.

The sequester, the budget failure that led to across-the-board cuts, apparently has given former opponents of privatization of the air transportation control system a reason to consider it, Bloomberg reports today.

The FAA cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget and faces more cuts next week and some people want to isolate funding air safety from politicians.

“It makes sense to examine the alternatives for operating and funding the nation’s air-traffic control system,” Craig Fuller, who stepped down as president of the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association earlier this month, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.

That’s a pretty big statement, considering that privatizing air traffic control services most certainly would come with user fees, which Fuller’s organization has vehemently opposed for years.

The model for privatizing would likely be Canada, where every flight is charged based on its weight. “After years of success, it is clear that the privatized Canadian and British systems work,” Joshua L. Schank, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, wrote in April:

No international travelers think they should avoid British or Canadian airspace for safety reasons. Union leaders concerned about the specter of lost jobs might consider that jobs are getting hit with today’s budget cuts.

Perhaps the sequester can have a positive impact on air travel if it gets us moving toward better organization of the FAA, air traffic control and air traffic safety regulation.

  • MrE85

    As someone who has logged some hours in the air, what’s your personal take on this proposal, Bob?

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I agree, it’s worth a discussion. Don’t know enough about it really to have a more solid opinion.

  • DFWdude

    Maybe we can finally get rid of all of those GS 14s and 15s who are retired in position. Any private organization who gets the AT contract, will have to lean things out. Bloated executives inside the beltway would be a good place to start.

    I only worrry the example Lockheed-Martin made with Flight Service Stations transition would be repeated. Service to the flying community went right in the dumper.

  • SaminMpls

    This is a well-written, dispassionate summary of the issue, but in this case, I want more from the author. Bob, any NewsCut junkie knows that you know more about aviation than all but a handful of your readers, and that certainly includes me. Do you think privatization would improve the ATC system? Does federal control serve to effectively enforce minimum standards, or does it stall innovation? If a privatized system included a move to break the controllers’ union, would that affect your opinion?

    • Blueline2

      Well Sam, I worked for FAA through the 70’s until 1981-then I was in the Middle East, and eventually in Europe (Eurocontrol). The Swiss were the first to privatize, then eventually the Brits, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Spaniards and Italians. In NO case was there a move to break a controllers’ union. Many controllers were opposed to privatization, but if you ask them now, they would oppose going back. As for users, to the best of my knowledge (now that I’m retired) delays in Europe are way down from the ‘public service’ days, costs are held in check, the ATC service providers are able to finance the equipment they need – no more depending on political winds to determine where you can buy your radar system, etc. If you look at European ATC equipment today, they are light years ahead of FAA. They actually get controllers’ input on what the equipment should do, how it interfaces with controllers, etc-just the opposite of what FAA does. Their executive levels are populated by young people, about 40 years old unlike FAA where HQ is full of old folks, just counting up their pensions.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      I don’t know the answer. I DO know that absent a functioning government — and we don’t have a functioning government — properly funding the system is not possible.

      There’s nothing in the U.S. that politicians won’t play politics with right now.

      • davidz

        But air traffic getting the politicos out of Washington D.C. and back to their homes (or their donors) is sacrosanct. We saw that with the F.A.A. exception to the sequester.

  • jon

    First they socialize medicine, and now they talk of privatizing air traffic control…

    I don’t know what the correct answer is for all of these things, but I find it interesting that perhaps, we are just doing what makes sense…

    I’m sure that can’t be the case, after all this is the federal government we are talking about, we are probably just planning to switch everything that is privatized now to being socialized, and vice versa.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Maybe if they privatize they will also get rid of the stupid law that won’t let you enter the profession if you’re over 30.

  • Frankie says

    I see some pretty interesting things from individuals swiftly approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56… the same who are the highest paid… The medical certificate process required for pilots/air traffic controllers is laughable at best… its a good rule.
    Pro-privatize folks hang their hat on air traffic control and a safety/regulatory body are two different things is flat out wrong. “The safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic” is in the very front of the air traffic controller handbook (FAA order 7110.65). Safety is not a tangible service and is not a sustainable business model. Its been called the ultimate monopoly… you can’t pick which firefighter or police officer you want to show when trouble is afoot and the same applies to pilots (and their passengers) when being served by their air traffic controller(s). Canada, New Zealand, Australia, GB as well as many others have privatized air traffic control. Simply put the US casts a very large shadow over the aforementioned as far as how many airplanes (i.e. people) are being safely handled daily. Canada handles 5% of what the US handles any given day. One of the most unfortunate realities is the flying public neh the general public has not been educated about how airports work, what pilots do, what are air traffic controllers etc… if the public doesn’t know I guarantee your elected official doesn’t either. Last point… Airport security checkpoints were ran by private companies for how many years? excuse me decades? and after 9/11 what was one of the first things Pres. G.W.Bush and admin do? TSA… now are we safer? I don’t know that answer but I do know during the very same day FAA gov’t air traffic controllers guided every single airplane in the sky to the closest airport and landed them safely and without a single incident or accident… this situation was never trained for but they did it. 2 years later after G.W.Bush federalized airport security to TSA he was pushing to air traffic control from the FAA and privatize it! the very people that ensured tragedy was not added to tragedy on 9/11 were basically told you’re expendable and the people looking through you bags aren’t.