The American Air Traffic Services Corporation: What’s In a Name?

Overlooking Washington Dulles International Airport from the FAA tower (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

After months of listening to the arguments of those for and against the privatization of air traffic control (ATC) in the U.S., June 27, 2017 saw the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approve a comprehensive FAA reauthorization package that includes the detail of the much-discussed proposal.

In order to contribute to an objective debate on this critical issue, I think it’s important to avoid any emotive language in the discussions. From reading the proposal, it is not seeking to privatize air traffic control, but instead create a federally chartered non-profit corporation to run the country’s ATC system.

The proposal is not contemplating outsourcing or selling the organization to a private, profit focused company, although it will maintain responsibility for the contract tower program. Therefore, corporatization is a more appropriate description than privatization.

I’ve argued for some time that the debate up until now has been too one dimensional: public vs. private equals good vs. bad. The “privatization” label is a distraction, when we should be talking about the best way to transform U.S. air traffic service provision for the benefit of all users. Hopefully we can now leave that diversion aside, and concentrate on the actual proposal.

Separation of service provision and regulation is a globally accepted principle in all safety critical sectors, to remove conflicts of interest and ensure there is a properly focused delivery organization, subject to appropriate oversight.

At a time when traffic continues to grow, the capabilities of new technology must be fully exploited in order to accommodate the rapidly changing operating environment, including the potential integration of remotely piloted vehicles. Decision support tools, capacity management systems, improved data displays, and in-built safety nets all allow additional traffic to be handled by controllers.

This requires investment, with associated long-term planning and financing, which is impossible to achieve if, as up until recently, the FAA has to rely on an average of five temporary funding bills a year.

The envisaged corporation should be able to focus solely on these issues, without distraction, as opposed to the current situation, where in addition to the staggered funding issue, air traffic control is just one in a myriad of aviation related matters being dealt with by the federal government.

For example, H.R.2997 – the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which outlined these proposals, also dealt with the requirements for the provision of discrete locations at airports for breastfeeding, and the protection of preferential employment rights for American Indians at an airport located on an Indian reservation.

While these are all very important issues, each with differing stakeholders who need to be satisfied, it simply serves to demonstrate the need to free the current FAA to focus on its stakeholders, current and future airspace users.

The proposal also finally provides considerable detail about how the new organization will be managed by a board led by a CEO, and comprising directors representing the following areas; government, airlines, cargo carriers, regional airlines, general aviation, business aviation, air traffic controllers, pilots, and airports.

The proposal also goes into a lot of detail on the composition of nomination panels to identify the directors from each area. In addition, the document also contemplates the creation of an advisory board, consisting of “not more than fifteen” members, representing in addition to those stakeholders named above, operators and manufacturers of commercial unmanned aircraft systems, appropriate labor organizations, the Department of Defense, and small communities.

Though it is admirable that attempts are being made to ease concerns about particular sectors having too much sway over the decisions of the corporation, I fear that the proposed structure may result in no decisions being taken at all. Having lived and worked in the Middle East for over fifteen years, I’m reminded of the observation that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

An area of the proposal where I would like to see more detail instead of less, is with respect to the arrangements for the important safety and economic oversight of the new corporation. A strong delivery organization will potentially be a huge benefit to the U.S., its aviation sector, and the wider economy.

However, this potential will only be achieved with a complementary regulator, appropriately and transparently funded, and with the skills and capabilities to challenge and support the provider where appropriate.

The FAA considered this issue three years ago when it commissioned The Mitre Corporation to investigate how six countries had separated its Air Navigation Service Provider from the relevant civil aviation authority, with particular focus on the experience of the new Regulator.

The report addressed the “governance, autonomy, structure, and funding of each CAA” to identify lessons learned, so the administration should already have a grasp of the issues.

Considering the FAA’s current authority expires at the end of September, time is tight for the appropriate, intelligent debate to take place on the management of the country’s invisible, but critical national infrastructure.


John Swift has a 28-year career in aviation, as a former air traffic controller, and leader of teams and facilities through periods of significant traffic growth and major technology and process changes. He has worked in public, private, and corporatized ANSPs before setting up his own independent advisory firm and supporting organizations to improve operational efficiency and grow their businesses.

 Find John on Linkedin.

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