Why not privatize the sky?

President Trump says he likes the idea of privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system, a topic that most people won’t understand or consider with the big pictures, and understandably so. For most people, aviation is an aluminum tube you get into after passing through security.

That’s probably why the one caution Trump indicated is that he didn’t want privatization to affect the cost of an airline ticket.

There are bigger and more important considerations as I’ve indicated in this space a number of times.

Safety. The nation’s air traffic control system is one of those government programs that actually works.

The following post originally ran on April 21, 2015.


John Moore |Getty Images file

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration took another step down Privatization Road when it stopped printing the navigation charts used by aviators. They’ll now be printed — for those people who depend on paper — by a private company, instead.

It’s not the first time the FAA turned over part of its functions to a corporation. A few years ago, all the “flight service stations” — there’s one in Princeton, Minn. — which provide weather and other services to pilots, were sold off to the Lockheed Corp. with mixed results.

Today, NPR broaches the next step in privatization: turning the entire air traffic control system over to a private company to run.

In so doing, it undersells a key component of such a plan — user fees — that roils the water between the big airlines and general aviation.

The FAA has a solution to augment radar. It’s called NextGen, and very simply put, it would replace the current air traffic control system with one based on GPS satellites, which would be more precise and allow more flights, closer together.

Problem is, the FAA has been working on NextGen for over a decade now, and still has a long ways to go. At a recent congressional hearing, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Penn., argued that “in the same amount of time that we’ve pursued NextGen, Verizon has updated its wireless system not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in the last 10 years.”

So Shuster and others in Congress, along with the airline industry, think it’s time for someone other than the FAA to operate the air traffic control system. Sharon Pinkerton, vice president of industry trade group Airlines for America, says air traffic control is “very technology focused and we need to have a very nimble organization and one that’s not subject to politics or an annual appropriations process, that’s going to enable it to get NextGen done quickly.”

Some put the blame on the FAA, for the snails’ pace roll out of NextGen. Robert Poole, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, calls the air traffic control function of the FAA “a 24-hour, seven days a week, high-tech service business trapped inside a government bureaucracy.”

By contrast, Poole says an air traffic system operated outside the FAA “wouldn’t have civil service culture, they wouldn’t be as risk averse and status quo oriented as they are, they’d be able to hire and keep really top notch engineers and software writers and program managers and hold them accountable for results.”

And it’s not just industry and the GOP that support extracting the air traffic control organization from the FAA. The union that represents air traffic controllers is on board too.

Canada’s air traffic control system is run by a nonprofit private company with pilots assessed user fees for services rendered.

But organizations representing U.S. pilots say that if that happens here, many pilots will simply stop using services that are designed to keep them from colliding.

In earlier budgets, President Obama took a step toward user fees and possible privatization by proposing a $100 flat fee for certain general aviation aircraft.

It was pulled after business groups and general aviation industry lobbying organizations proposed raising the tax on jet fuel instead.

And there’s the problem, they say. Congress won’t properly fund a pretty important element of the U.S. transportation system — keeping airplanes from bending metal.

But the idea may have picked up some steam this week when the union for air traffic controllers — who’ve been victimized by the gridlock in Washington — signaled it might support turning the whole operation over to private interests, The Hill reported.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said Monday that Congress should focus first on extending the FAA’s funding, but he said he would be willing to talk about efforts to reform the agency after the aviation money is firmly put in place.

“We understand that addressing the funding makes a lot of people look toward the structure of the FAA. But we must agree that finding a secure, stable funding system is the first thing that needs to be agreed to,” Rinaldi said in a speech to the Aero Club of Washington.

“Any structural changes that we want to examine has to be carefully examined and cannot be done with any haste or exuberance that will lead to unintended consequences,” he continued. “Safety has to always be our priority. None of us can afford to get this wrong.”

The comments came a week after Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) introduced legislation in the House that calls for the creation of a new private corporation that would oversee air traffic control functions that are currently handled by the FAA. The new private organization would be known as the Employee Stock Ownership Corporation and would “allow stakeholders, including current air traffic controllers, airlines and users, to operate a new air traffic control system,” according to Mica.

Some of the delay in advancing the ATC system technology involves equipment that needs to be installed in airplanes to accomplish it.

By 2020, all current aircraft will have to be retrofitted to provide more data to air traffic control and make weather and traffic data available to pilots. It’s an improvement, but for general aviation aircraft owners, it also means spending 20 percent of a current airplane’s value for new equipment, in some cases.

Still, the odds for privatization seem to be improving. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, vehement opponents of privatization a dozen yeaars ago, now says it’s interested in anything that will improve efficiency.



Related:
Why Travelers Should Care That Trump Is Inclined To Privatize Air Traffic Control (Forbes)