Debate on Privatizing Air traffic Control Rachets Up After DOT Inspector General Issues Report.

One of the U.S House leadership’s goals for the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization is to privatize the nation’s Air Traffic Control system. Although this idea has been kicked around before (see Has The Time Come to Privatize Air Traffic Control?), it seems to have gained traction in this Congress largely due to the rising costs and delays in the implementation of a new satellite-based flight navigation system known as NextGen.  In preparation for the upcoming debate, the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) commissioned the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General Office to examine how other countries managed the transition.  That report, which was issued on Wednesday, September 9, 2015, found significant differences between the U.S. air traffic control system and methods for managing flight movements in the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Germany.

It is largely the failure of the FAA to implement NextGen quickly and efficiently that highlight the differences between it and the foreign, private sector, air traffic control systems.  The implementation of NextGen, which was finally approved by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget cutting in Washington.  The DOT IG points out in its report that “[t]he A[ir] Navigation S[ervice] P[rovider]s are financially self-supporting and finance their operations primarily through user fees, but also have borrowing authority for modernization and infrastructure projects.”  Moreover, “[t]he ANSPs also do not embark on large-modernization efforts or conduct extensive aviation research and development. Rather, they implement new technologies incrementally, using a variety of methods, such as purchasing commercial-off-the-shelf technologies.”  In other words, a privatized air traffic control system would be nimbler and more efficient because it would not rely on government funding to upgrade the system.

Rep. Shuster could not have been more pleased with the result. In a publically released, he said that the report “shows that other major industrial countries have successfully separated their ATC functions without negative impacts to safety, and these systems are able to make enough money to be self-sustaining.” Stating that “[i]f we want to finally modernize our aviation system, reduce delays, and generate more efficiencies in our skies, we can’t continue to just tinker around the edges . . . We have to take action that transforms the way we do things.”

However, there is opposition to the privatization of air traffic control.  First, the FAA’s faulty and untimely roll-out of NextGen is not entirely to blame for the U.S.’s antiquated air traffic control system.  Prior to the passage of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA had gone without funding for 5 years, limping along on 23 short-term operating bills.  Had the FAA been reauthorized when its funding ran out in 2007, NextGen would have had a five-year head start on the current situation.  Thus, gridlock in Congress is partially to blame for the status of the U.S. air traffic control system.

Second, there is a growing segment in the aviation industry that believes that they will be overlooked in the name of financial expediency.  Most recently, a group of South Dakota aviation businesses wrote to Sen. John Thune (R-SD) expressing their concern about privatizing air traffic control.  Their main concern is the reliance of a private air traffic control system on user fees that “will undermine the national air transportation system by denying rural America access to cutting-edge technology and hinder South Dakota’s economic development.”

The funding for the FAA is up at the end of September.  According to The Hill, Shuster has signaled that he will include the privatization push in an upcoming funding bill for the FAA.

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