Torqued: Privatizing ATC Is a Bad Idea

 - April 4, 2016, 6:00 AM

If you think the FAA runs an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy that has bungled attempts to modernize and improve the air traffic control system, get in line. A lot of people think that. And so do I. But will handing over control of the nation’s skies to a private company make things better? Will the skies be safer? It’s hard to beat the FAA’s record on that, so I will put safety aside as a reason for privatizing.

Would modernization be accelerated and the system be made more efficient? In some circles, “privately run” is the magic-bullet cure for all things government. But large corporations can be every bit as bureaucratic, inefficient and slow to modernize as the government. I’ve worked at some of those companies over the years, including a number of airlines, many of which are no longer with us, brought down at least in part by failures of management to remain competitive, say by increasing efficiencies or modernizing their operations. But there’s no need to pick on just the airlines. As with most things, the devil is in the details.  

So what are the details of this particular bill? The Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2016AIRR 2016 if you like cute acronyms–proposes a not-for-profit corporation to run the air traffic system. That corporation would be run by a CEO and a board of directors. The board of directors would be picked by nominating members.

The nominating members would be made up of the following, at least initially:

  1. The Secretary of Transportation as representative of the federal government.
  2. Individuals appointed as follows:
    1. An individual appointed by the principal organization representing mainline air carriers. [Sorry, Delta, you might have to reconsider abandoning your membership in Airlines for America.]
    2. An individual appointed by the principal organization representing noncommercial owners and recreational operators of general aviation aircraft. [Sounds like AOPA is the winner.]
    3. An individual appointed by the principal organization engaged in collective bargaining on behalf of air traffic controllers. [Is this the reason Natca is supporting this bill? And none of the other federal government unions.]
    4. An individual appointed by the principal organization representing the largest certified collective bargaining representative of airline pilots.  [Sounds like ALPA would be the pick. Note to all the other pilot unions, size matters here.]
    5. An individual appointed by the principle organization representing owners, operators and users of general aviation aircraft used exclusively in furtherance of business enterprises. [NBAA was finally added in an amendment to the original bill.]
    6. An individual appointed by the principal organization representing aerospace manufacturers. [AIA is also a late addition to the bill.]

So what exactly are nominating members? They’re the ones who get to pick who would sit on the Board and control the corporation providing the nation’s air traffic services.  So far it seems very one person, one vote. But that’s not correct.

Power Disparity

The bill proposes that the Secretary of Transportation representing–we hope–the public would get to pick two directors. A4A–might as well call them by their name–would get to pick four directors, twice the number of directors the Secretary can pick. AOPA would pick two and Natca, ALPA, NBAA and AIA would pick one each. This arrangement would last only for the initial round of directors; after that the nominating members would be selected in accordance with the corporation’s bylaws. Unions, take note. You might be sitting pretty for one term but if you don’t play well with the airlines, you could well be booted in the future. And remember too, after the initial appointments all directors–other than those selected by the Secretary–are subject to board approval. And with the airlines’ four votes, it’s not hard to imagine who will control the board. Especially if you’re cynical like me and think the Secretary’s appointments may not be immune from industry lobbying.

One of the things that strike me is how quaint the composition of the board seems. It is dated before it even comes into existence. Yes, there are many missing constituencies on this board of directors– NATA and AAAE (representing airports), to name two–but the glaring omission that makes the board’s composition so out of touch with the future of aviation is the lack of representation for unmanned aircraft. With UAS fast outnumbering manned aircraft and growing pressure to approve cargo delivery, the absence of unmanned aircraft representatives shows a startling lack of foresight by the sponsors of this bill.

But, to be fair, UAS have not been totally forgotten. It’s just that the industry won’t have a seat where it matters. The sponsors of this bill have also created an advisory board for the also-rans. That’s where commercial UAS would be seated–along with commercial service airports, “appropriate” labor organizations, the Department of Defense and “small communities.”

Of course, as with the board of directors, the composition of the advisory board can be changed by–you guessed it–the board of directors in accordance with whatever bylaws it decides to write. And, as with most advisory boards, its functions are limited. It “may, on its own initiative, study, report and make recommendations to the Board on matters relating to the Corporation’s provision of air traffic services and associated safety considerations.”

I think privatizing ATC is a bad idea and I think this bill in particular is a terrible idea.  The government can make a mess of things, but I don’t want the airlines deciding how the airspace gets used, by whom and when. There might be a benefit to moving air traffic services out of the FAA, perhaps into a separate agency. 

But in my opinion the navigable airspace is a public resource. No private company–even if it is a not-for-profit–should be making decisions about who uses it, when and how, or have the authority to levy fees on users. Especially when such disproportionate power would be vested in just one segment of aviation users, the airlines.

Comments

Actually, privatizing ATC is a great idea, IF it is done right. Look at NAV Canada! Your little neighbour to the north has had an ATC system which is NOT FOR PROFIT, user funded, and far more efficient than the current FAA system, for 10 years or more. And user funded is done in a fair manner, ATC fees for the C172 pilot are minimal, maybe $10-20 per day of use depending on airspace/airports, or no fee at all if flights take place away from major centers. Personally, as an airline pilot, I despise having to switch centre frequencies 20-30 times between Toronto and Washington, and I know that a properly run ATC unit would and could do better. All of those frequency changes are far more than a nuisance to both pilot and controller, they are a safety issue that creates distraction and increases likelihood of errors with each switch. And the FAA has done nothing to improve on the current system for decades. If America wants to have a first world ATC system, it's time for change. If you want to allow Canada and other smaller nations lead the way, then keep the FAA in power. It's your nation, and it's your choice.

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