AIN Blog: Privatizing ATC: Wasting a Century of Aviation Development

 - March 22, 2017, 3:48 AM

When it comes to politics, one thing that is as sure as death and taxes is that stupid ideas rear their ugly heads over and over. Apparently humans are not good at learning from history. The repeated attempts by political leaders spurred by special interests to privatize the air traffic control system in the U.S. are an excellent case in point.

Every time the idea of ATC privatization comes up, there is a flurry of activity from both proponents and opponents, and rightfully so, for there is much at stake. 

What is at stake is the very nature of the U.S. aviation industry.

Aviation has been most successful in the U.S. because of, not despite, government support. Sure we often complain about over-regulation, but in fact, the reason that aviation grew into such a healthy industry, the crown jewel of a once-mighty American manufacturing industry, is because the government knew when to step in and when to let the industry do its own thing and grow unfettered by burdensome restrictions.

The primary difference between aviation in the U.S. and in most other countries, with few exceptions, is the philosophy of public ownership of public assets. This is a hard concept for outsiders to grasp, but it is fundamental to the freedoms that we U.S. citizens enjoy.

What this means is that if an airport is a government-owned, then it is by default public property and therefore available for public use. That is why I can, if I choose to pay the landing fee, fly into Los Angeles International, JFK, Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare and other big airports in a small general aviation airplane (which I have done). Our government can’t tell me to bug off because the airport has to be made available to me, a member of the public. 

Likewise most of the airspace over the U.S., with the exception of certain special-use airspace that is off limits and, to the great annoyance of every pilot, certain areas designated as temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) that are really permanent. Nevertheless, we pilots in the U.S. enjoy an almost unprecedented access to the airspace that is unfettered; just like the large airports served mostly by airlines, the government can’t tell us to stay away from the Class B airspace that surrounds these airports. Sure, air traffic controllers get busy and might refuse a Class B clearance, but we have every right to fly in that airspace as long as we abide by the rules and follow ATC clearances.

We also have full access to flying almost anywhere, and no one can tell us we can’t use the IFR infrastructure if we and our aircraft are qualified.

Best of all, there is no charge to use ATC services. Unlike some countries where you have to pay extra to shoot an ILS approach and where weather briefings cost money, in the U.S., all these services are free to the user.

Of course we know that these services cost money to develop and support, and we gladly pay the fuel taxes that help the government fund these valuable resources. What we really like about the U.S. system is that there is zero incentive not to participate. What I mean by this is that when flying along IFR, I don’t have a little accountant monkey sitting on my shoulder reminding me that I’m paying umpty dollars per mile for the privilege of flying IFR. And if I want to shoot the ILS approach at my destination because the weather is below VFR minimums, I can do so without paying extra. There is no self-induced pressure to save a few bucks by forgoing the ILS approach and trying to sneak in under the weather. What kind of idiotic government would put that kind of pressure on a pilot?

So now to the debate about privatizing ATC in the U.S. The arguments are flying back and forth, and it’s going to be a huge battle, but this doesn’t have to happen because the way the system is set up now is the absolute best possible and there is nothing that will ever change that.

ATC is the Internet of aviation. Free access to ATC and the airspace that we the public own is a fundamental issue, as important to aviation safety and success as the Internet has become to a large part of our lives.

It is hard to understand why the airlines and their paid-for politicians are so hell-bent on privatizing ATC. Don’t they understand where pilots come from? Complaints abound about the pilot shortage, and many airlines are not only scrambling to fill crew seats but also claim to have had to cancel flights because of the lack of pilots. 

The U.S. aviation system is the largest generator of pilots, probably in the world, and the reason this is so is in part because the free-to-use ATC system nurtures flying. If airlines want to see the flow of pilots cut even further, go ahead and privatize ATC, start charging everyone to participate, and watch general aviation flying decline even further. 

Look, we’re all in this game together. Airlines depend on general aviation for future flight crews, and general aviation depends on airlines for future jobs. Business aviation is a key component of the U.S. economy, and adding yet another expense to the operation of business aircraft is just going to encourage more owners to give up on business aviation. 

Maybe the airlines think that privatizing ATC will give them some advantage and more evenly distribute their costs among the general aviation fliers who share the same airspace and runways. But that’s short-sighted thinking. Privatizing ATC in the U.S. will destroy the U.S. aviation system and waste more than 100 years of an amazing flowering of technology, a tour de force of human ingenuity.