There is a growing push among airlines, labor unions and other aviation stakeholders to dramatically reshape how the nation’s airspace is controlled and who controls it.
Fortunately, the Senate has again deemed that the U.S. is not yet ready for the privatization of our airspace. In a move this week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has passed a bill that reauthorizes the FAA without privatization and user fees, but only for the short-term through the end of Fiscal Year 2017, so the immediate threat has been stopped but the issue is not dead. The push to privatize the FAA and add user fees to the funding mix will likely reemerge – and each time it does, there seems to be more support behind it.
Support for ATC privatization is universal among airlines, except for Delta Airlines. “There is simply no compelling reason to change such a critical system that works so very well,” Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson wrote in testimony to the House Transportation Committee last month. “Indeed, this bill feels like an experiment. Our nation’s air traffic control system is too important—to public safety, economic growth and national security—and working too well for such an experiment to be prudent.”
The main criticism of the FAA is that its lethargic bureaucracy has been slow to modernize the U.S. airspace by implementing the new air traffic control system (NextGEN) which Congress authorized back in 2003. This criticism is valid, but clearly can be linked to inconsistent funding of the FAA from a dysfunctional Congress, which has resorted to short-term federal funding for the FAA 23 times in the past several years. Putting that issue aside, the FAA’s primary responsibility is to oversee the world’s largest, busiest and most congested airspace. In this regard, the FAA has done a great job statistically as U.S. aviation is the safest in the world.
Despite this fact, Senator Bill Schuster (R-PA.), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is drafting legislation which would turn over control of the nation’s airspace to a chartered, non-profit monopoly that would implement user fees to fund its operation and float bonds to build a new air traffic infrastructure and modernize the system. Schuster’s plan is modeled after Nav Canada, a non-governmental entity that handles less than one-tenth the air traffic volume in the U.S.
What’s really at stake here?
As the nation’s national debt continues to grow to perilous levels, Congress is looking for ways to cut budgets, reduce deficit spending and limit government oversight as much as possible. In the case of the FAA, this is shortsighted and perhaps even dangerous. Proponents of ATC privatization want the FAA to regulate safety, but not oversee or manage the air traffic control system, its facilities or personnel – as if safety and air traffic control were somehow separate.
The proposal calls for the creation of a quasi-private/public entity. If you aren’t as skeptical about government-created, non-profit corporations as we are, you should be. Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, The Port Authority of New York and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority are just a few dismal examples.
Historically, these entities become bloated, wasteful and politically corrupt. Freddie Mac’s and Fannie Mae’s sub-prime lending policies contributed to the mortgage collapse in 2007/08. Moreover, the ever-escalating subway fares and bridge tolls in New York City over the past decade will tell you exactly what a non-profit overseer can do to your wallet.
Bottom line? A FAA dependent upon “user fees” for revenue will add more cost to flying and will be ineffective in generating additional revenue, because any new revenue will be swallowed up by a completely new bureaucracy that would be created to charge, collect, distribute and enforce fees. These additional people won’t be air traffic controllers, but instead toll takers.
What is it really all about? Money, Principle, Safety?
132 million flights are handled by U.S. controllers annually. The U.S. also has 80% of the busiest airports in the world along with the best safety record. As we said earlier, the FAA is doing a good job.
The public seems to agree. Recently the Global Strategy Group polled 801 registered voters across the U.S.to gauge public sentiment about privatizing the air traffic system. Nearly 2 out of 3 do not want privatization because they view the U.S. air traffic system as working well. Even among voters who usually favor privatization of government functions, there is a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” sentiment when it comes to our current air traffic system.
Putting the safety issue aside, some privatization advocates argue that air traffic control shouldn’t be in the hands of a regulatory agency such as the FAA, especially one so perniciously micromanaged by Congress. They see air traffic as purely operational and not requiring government oversight. They argue that air traffic is a high-tech service which should be run like a business (we all know how much business puts safety above profits!).
More things to ponder.
Because we have been unabashed about our skepticism of privatization from the outset of this article, we would like to share some concerns that we and other like-minded aviation folk have about the plan. Consider:
- At risk would also be funding for general aviation and smaller airports – the concern being that large air carriers would funnel more funding to larger airports and hubs.
- The public airspace belongs to the American public at large and we need to ensure that it continues to operate for the public’s benefit — not just for powerful and influential special interest groups.
- The current fuel per gallon tax is the most efficient, cost effective, least bureaucratic and most fair means to pay for ATC and the airspace system.
- Europe, Canada and New Zealand employ user fees. Users of these systems frequently complain of delayed and inaccurate billing, as well as being “blocked” from the airspace during certain day parts.
- Delta Airlines (the only major airline that has voiced concern about the user-fees and the safety of privatization) states it costs them over $100 per flight segment to process user fees – a cost that will be passed on to the flying public.
- Canada and Europe claim to be equally as safe, if not safer than the US system. To say “as safe or safer” is misleading as the U.S. ATC system handles far more air traffic than Canada and Europe combined. Canada’s daily air traffic control amounts to the same number of flights controlled in Illinois on a daily basis.
- Proponents of a privatized ATC system state that it will cost less to operate. Yet, our ATC system has never “shut down” due to a lack of funding, even during the darkest of economic days. In Europe, the privatized ATC system has been “bailed out” 3 times during economic downturns, and still operates under tremendous financial strain.
We are the first to agree that the FAA must operate more efficiently – but the key to that is maintaining Congressional oversight and retaining fuel taxes in order to protect the interests of all stakeholders, communities and airports — large and small.
The national airspace belongs to all of us. Let’s not turn our skies into a toll-road only special interests can afford to use.