Every decade or so, sometimes more often, someone or some organization proposes “privatizing” the U.S. air traffic control system. In 1985 it was the Air Transport Association (ATA), now renamed Airlines for America, which released a study calling for a self-supporting federal ATC corporation. But there was no support in Congress, and the general aviation community feared it would lead to unaffordable user fees.
The first time I crossed paths with the concept was early in my time in Washington, when the relatively new Clinton Administration suggested taking ATC out of the FAA and putting it into a U.S. Air Traffic Services (USATS) corporation. Rep. Norm Mineta (D-Calif.), who later became a secretary of transportation, introduced the enabling legislation. This time, supporters included ATA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca). But GA groups once again opposed it, and the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), kept the bill bottled up in committee, where it died.
In 1997, the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, chaired by Mineta, who by then was working in the private sector, proposed what might be described as “USATS Lite,” which would create a separate Air Traffic Organization (ATO) within the Department of Transportation, funded mostly by transaction fees and able to issue revenue bonds. In this round, Congress approved an FAA reorganization that created the ATO within the FAA, but without the authority to set user fees or float bonds.
During the George W. Bush administration, Natca vociferously opposed any move toward ATC privatization and tried to eliminate the contract tower program, as well as prevent the outsourcing of the Flight Service Station program. Under then-FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, the FAA sought user fees and bonding authority for the ATO, but this time Natca and the GA community joined in opposition.
Robert Poole, a co-founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which has long espoused some form of ATC privatization, said the ATA “made things worse by running a media campaign demonizing business jet users as fat cats who ought to pay the same user fees as jetliners, on the grounds that ‘a blip is blip.’”
Now, discussion has been rekindled on removing management of ATC from government control, fueled in no small part by budget cuts required under sequestration and questions about long-term funding of NextGen. “There are conversations taking place among the stakeholders,” says Gerald Dillingham, civil aviation director of the Government Accountability Office. “All things are on the table, including privatization or corporatization.”