Counter-Opinion: Why I’m Against ATC Privatization

Inside an FAA Air Traffic Control Tower at Washington Dulles International Airport (Photo: Ryan Ewing)

Last week, President Donald Trump announced a reform of the United States Air Traffic Control system. His proposal consists of taking control over air traffic control away from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and instead placing it in private hands. This idea has been floating around in Congress for many years now, and is based on similar systems in other countries. According to Trump, privatization would result in less delays and more flights for passengers, however this may not be the case.

The Proposal

Mr. Trump’s announcement criticized the amount of time the FAA has taken to update its system. While it is true that many of the systems used by the air traffic control system in the United States are outdated and in need of replacing, it may not be the people but the resources available to them. Funding for the FAA is often below what is needed to keep the organization running, with the idea of upgrading far from the balance sheets.

The FAA also has to train and upgrade itself, all while operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Facilities are not like grocery stores or businesses that close overnight. Making upgrades is particularly difficult, as the system is constantly in use and is constantly needed.

Obtaining consistent funding to make these upgrades happen hasn’t been easy either. For a period of four years between 2007 and 2011, the FAA was funded using 20 temporary bills. This would make any significant improve to infrastructure difficult and nearly impossible.

Private Doesn’t Always Mean Safe

One of Trump’s key points from his announcement was that privatizing air traffic control would make flying safer. Just because the air traffic control facilities would be private, doesn’t necessarily mean they would always be safer. In 2002, a Russian Tupolev and an American Boeing collided over southern Germany, killing all 71 people on both flights.

Both aircraft were under the control of the private Swiss airspace control company, Skyguide. The air traffic controller was working two stations at the same time, and his equipment was delayed due to maintenance being performed. Although human factors did play a factor in the crash, the work of the air traffic controller played a significant factor in the crash.

Currently, the United States also has one of the best safety records in aviation around the world. The last fatal crash in the United States was in 2009, while the last collision was in 1991 in Los Angeles. The skies above the U.S. are some of the busiest and safest in the world, and it’s hard to improve on that.

Improving Passenger Wait Times Unlikely

Another point brought up by Mr. Trump was that a private air traffic control system would reduce wait times for passengers. At the busiest airports in the United States, most delays are not caused by air traffic control unable to keep up with the traffic, but rather due to the amount of traffic there is.

Air traffic controls have certain safety margins they must keep traffic within, and delays are caused when there is too much traffic to stay within those margins. By privatizing our air traffic control system it will not increase the amount of traffic a controller can handle, as they are still human and have limits. They also have safety margins to stay within that a private air traffic control system won’t change.

One of the most prominent issues that is raised with the privatization of air traffic control is the amount of power that the airlines will be given. Under the current FAA administration, every aircraft is treated equal with only regards for safety being taken into account. Under a private system, this could change.

Trump’s proposal calls for a board made up of airline representatives, general aviation representatives, unions, and the FAA. However, this may give the airlines too much power and leave the general aviation users at a disadvantage. The influence of the airlines could push general aviation users out of the sky.

Another issue with this is that the FAA loses direct control over the skies above the United States. Although the FAA will still have oversight over a private air traffic control system, any changes they wish to be implemented would need to go through this board, and could delay critical changes for safety.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, despite Mr. Trump’s claims that privatization will make flying better for everyone, it is hard to believe how the impact could be as positive as he makes it seem. The current system can be upgraded with the proper funding allocated and the resources sent in the right direction.

The FAA can continue to manage and operate the United States’ air traffic control system. It is already one of the safest systems in the world and will be hard to surpass, even with privatization. There is a need for modernization of the system, however, this is not done through privatization, and it can be done through the current systems in place.

Daniel Morley

Daniel Morley

Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.
Daniel Morley
  • John Swift

    Daniel, I have to challenge, support and build upon some of the aspects you’ve used to form your counter opinion here, in an attempt to broaden the reader’s understanding and continue to a positive debate on this issue.

    “Private doesn’t always mean safe”
    You cite the 2002 Überlingen disaster to back up this statement, however there is no specific evidence to argue that the commercial model of the air traffic service provider contributed to the cause. Human factors such as controller distraction and facility supervision played significant part…..much like the findings of the NTSB report into the fatal mid air collision over the Hudson in 2009 which criticised FAA. However, I wouldn’t use that incident as an argument for privatisation by saying the current system is unsafe; that’s an over simplification of a complex issue.

    Millions of passengers fly on aircraft operated by private airlines, every minute of every day in the US. Does the “private doesn’t always mean safe” argument apply to that sector? No, because that private sector is still answerable to the FAA for safety oversight, much the same as the proposed model for air traffic control.

    “Improving Passenger Wait Times Unlikely”
    As a former controller, and manager of operational facilities, I agree with you that we are in fact human, and therefore we have limits. However, technology continues to be developed which increases those limits. Decision support tools, capacity management systems, improved data displays, and in-built safety nets all allow additional traffic to be handled. This requires investment, with associated long term planning and financing, which is impossible to achieve if you rely on an average of 5 temporary funding bills a year from central government.

    The current debate is too one dimensional; public v private = good v bad. The “privatisation” label is a distraction, when we should be talking about the best way to transform US air traffic service provision for the benefit of all users.

    The principles we should consider are:

    1 – Separation of service provision and regulation is a globally accepted principle in all safety critical sectors, to remove conflicts of interest and ensure appropriate oversight.

    2 – Sustainable, long term funding is essential to ensure technology is fully exploited for the benefits to controllers and airspace users alike.

    I think we all agree that the status quo cannot meet those principles, and that change is required. The US has an opportunity to transform it’s service provision model, and the debate should be about how best to do that, and what the future structure should look like. That’s a lot more positive that the yes/ no, right/ wrong, agree/ disagree discussions we’re currently witnessing.

    Whilst I’m a strong advocate for change, the one area I think still needs significant debate is on the structure and composition of the supervisory board. There is definitely a need for consultation vehicle that genuinely listens to the needs and concerns of all stakeholders, however if that body is also tasked with the direction and management of the organisation, it risks losing focus and will fail to achieve the important goals that necessitated change in the first place.

    I hope this helps stimulate that debate.
    John

    https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnvswift/

    • Hi John,

      You make some great and well-constructed points here. Given your past expierence as an air traffic controller, would you be interested in writing a guest post for us about this debate? Feel free to email me at ryan@airlinegeeks.com.