The idea of removing government from management of the air traffic control system has surfaced again. It should be seriously considered for several reasons, not the least of which is the fiscal mess the nation is in a couple of decades after then-President Bill Clinton proposed turning air traffic control over to a government corporation.
Caution has to be the watchword when considering any change in transportation safety, especially in the increasingly busy sector of air traffic control. Any privatization must be done with safety in mind.
Recent developments have brought the question back to light, and because of the still-weak economy the idea is gaining some surprising new advocates. Leaders of the air traffic controllers’ union and a private pilots lobbying group – people normally on opposite sides of the table on most things – have endorsed talks on privatization.
The main driver of the willingness to talk can be summed up in a word: sequester. That is, the automatic budget cuts imposed when Congress and President Obama could not agree on how to close the gap between federal spending and revenue. The Federal Aviation Administration cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget this fiscal year. It faces additional cuts in the new fiscal year.
Such reckless reductions translated into a flyer’s worst nightmare in April when the FAA began furloughing controllers one day every two weeks. There were flight delays of as much as two hours in major cities. The agency also tried to close 149 low-activity control towers operated by contractors. It was a mess. Members of Congress, not so coincidentally frequent fliers, stepped in days later and passed a temporary funding bill that gave the FAA a authority to use airport improvement grant money to pay controllers and operate the towers.
That was a near-miss that could happen again, according to FAA officials.
The FAA also faces the huge expense of upgrading its technology, with no way to pay for it. The NextGen system will rely on satellite navigation to guide airplanes.
Dozens of countries, including Australia, Canada and Germany, have gotten their governments out of managing flight traffic and instead sent the work to various private and public-private organizations.
In Canada, air traffic control is the purview of a nonprofit corporation funded by user fees, while safety is overseen by the government.
Even if the U.S. government gets out of the air traffic control business, strong oversight will be necessary to ensure that safety is not being compromised by efforts to save money.
The turbulent economy and new technology have forced many changes on us. It may be time for air traffic control to change also.