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Conflict over how to manage our air traffic control (ATC) system is still up in the air. 

Everyone seems to be getting into the fray. It’s another example of political acrimony but the stakes in this case are sky high.

At issue: how can we advance the infrastructure improvement of airports and develop new technology to control our skies?

The proposed solution: separate the ATC from the FAA and make it a non-for-profit, quasi government, semi-independent organization.

The gaggle of participants in this debate is numerous. The White House, President Trump and many Republicans want to privatize ATC to bring a new world of aviation to America. For years and on the campaign trail Trump has complained that our airports and airlines are in terrible shape compared to other countries.

It is true there are stark differences in facilities, space, and overall modernity of airports in Dubai, New Delhi, Qatar, Hong Kong and Beijing compared to most any major airport in the U.S. Ultra-modern, new airports in the Middle East, Sub-Continent and Asia are stand-out examples illustrating that Trump is right about the differences.

Supporting the Republicans includes all the major airlines. In this situation, as strange as it may sound, the unionized ATC workers themselves are ready to support it (there allegiance is affected by whether their contract is respected).

The Democrats oppose it, along with maverick Republicans and several aviation industry organizations like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the National Air Transportation Association (ATA), and the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA). They are against it arguing it would give too much power to the airlines as they would threaten access for general aviation.

Of course, the FAA (about 11,000 employees) and members of DoD are against the idea.

The first-round results ended with the House voting in favor of the change.

The Senate voted against it.

So, the battle goes on.

The list of reasons to privatize is apparent, but the main reason seems to be based on one big issue: the FAA has failed to deliver the “NextGen” technology to improve air traffic control and management for safety and efficient use of the skies.

In the simplest terms, the airports have fallen far behind with infrastructure improvements to facilities with some, like LaGuardia or Newark airports, used as routine jokes on late night television shows. However, this is separate from the fundamental ATC problem involving the development of much needed new technology – computer software, communications and locationing technology using the advanced capabilities of satellite and GPS-based systems.

Such technology would improve tracking, flight scheduling, landing and take-off practices, and other efficiencies that could accommodate higher traffic, especially at peak times that cause the most problems, especially during bad weather. Further, advanced collision avoidance technology would be important both in the air and on the ground and would enhance air traffic safety.

At face value, most know that the FAA has done an admirable job on day-to-day airline control operations and is recognized around the world as unmatched in safety and methods to separate, monitor, and control flights of incoming/outgoing aircraft. The FAA is the benchmark for all other countries in the world. The FAA controls more aircraft in a month than many countries do in a year. The live graphical displays used on television news programs showing the numbers of aircraft in the air over the United States is mind boggling.

So, let’s look at why privatizing the ATC and taking it out of the FAA simply does not work for the benefit of all travelers.

The FAA has an 80+ year history of excellent safety and performance in U.S. aviation. It is the premier agency in the world and sets the standards for managing aviation worldwide. Why take the risk to break this record even if it means a temporary delay in obtaining system efficiencies? What is the problem we are trying to fix? Any proposed action to split up the FAA would require at least a three-year transition so nothing is going to be immediate anyway.

For many reasons, it is true that the FAA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and the new “NextGen” system is still far away. Some accuse the FAA of project mismanagement. Even so, it does not make sense to break up the organization solely due to this engineering program dysfunction. The FAA needs help with the right technical expertise to make it happen. There are other ways to address this kind of program development effectiveness without fracturing the mission of the FAA.

The FAA needs internal reorganization. One approach would be to create a separate group within the FAA that would be dedicated to managing information technology development for aviation with a management structure and chief that reports directly to the Director of the FAA.

However, by splintering the FAA and creating a not-for-profit organization, the current proposal suggests that it would be easy for the airlines to control the rules and future direction of activities. This would create too much turmoil in America’s aviation industry. The fear is credible that general aviation would be secondary to concerns of the airlines and their flight plans and operations. More, it would have an impact on non-commercial aviation and the smaller airports.

The task of creating such a new ATC organization would be monumental considering we have about 30,000 air controllers, over 400 primary airports and about 2,000 total airports in the U.S. Then there are the concerns about all foreign aircraft operating between various countries around the world and the U.S. It cannot be underestimated knowing the concerns and risks about safety as the highest priority.

A quick check at says it best:

“The role of the FAA Airports organization in meeting this goal is to provide leadership in planning and developing a safe and efficient national airport system to satisfy the needs of aviation interests of the United States. The FAA Airports organization accomplishes this task with due consideration for economics, environmental compatibility, local proprietary rights and the safeguarding of the public investment.”

The airlines have a singular focus: wring out maximum efficiencies to improve profit to avoid near misses with bankruptcy that has plagued the industry for decades. The counterbalance to this must be a focused FAA with the regulatory concerns to protect the overall safety of the system, passengers, and providers. Compromising this FAA focus can have serious consequences.

There is a strong possibility that user fees and ticket prices would have to go up to accommodate the creation of any new agency. After all, how else can such a massive switch be funded?

The FAA has operated for 80 years and spent billions of dollars on an extensive, complex system of equipment, software, radar units, control towers and other systems. Estimates run as high as $50 Billion worth of assets developed, owned and operated by the FAA. Turning this over to a separate agency not entirely in control of the U.S. Government opens-up the door to all kinds of problems.

Imagine too if we had another national emergency and the President or Secretary of Transportation issued another order to ground all aircraft immediately as done during the 9-11 attacks. Would that work as well as it did in 2001 with a different organization in charge and run by the airlines as majority stakeholders?

Another concern is how a quasi-government organization performs. One can look at the USPS, Fannie Mae or Amtrak to see obvious red flags. Such organizations are typically bloated, inefficient, underfunded and bleed enormous amounts of money every year.

As quoted in the USAToday, “Rep Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who is a general-aviation pilot, said the government shouldn’t give control over the airspace to industry stakeholders any more than a highway should be given to truckers.”

In the end, we must all come down to Earth safely and focus on fundamentals.

Otherwise, it could be a crash landing.


Credit (Article): John Shoemaker
Credit (Photo): Shivram (APT Blogspot)