Privatizing the Air Traffic Control system is a really bad idea (but Trump needs to change the subject)

  • Published on June 5th, 2017

There’s only one reason we’re talking about Trump’s stupid scheme privatizing the Air Traffic Control system, putting a critical piece of US safety and security infrastructure in private hands. A scheme that’s so bad it was rejected out of hand by the GOP House and Senate just last year.

By Jeremy Bloomairport movie air traffic control privatization

But President Trump needed SOMETHING concrete to make the centerpiece of his infrastructure privatization week. Which he desperately needs to change the subject from Russian hacking of the election and his campaign’s collusion in everything from leaks to moneylaundering. And this ATC privatization, as lame and lamentable as it is, constitutes the only “shovel-ready” project his team has.

Seriously. Everything else he’s going to talk about this week – the bold private/public partnership (which will once again be the grand ol’ strategy of privatizing benefits and profits while publicizing risks – will be in grand, general, and exceedingly vague terms. Just like the one-page tax plan he announced last month (and we’ve heard nothing else about).

In making his announcement today, it should therefor come as no surprise that Trump stuck to broad, brash bombast while acting like the documents he was signing were bills or executive orders (they weren’t – the White House dubbed them”Statements of Legislative Principles.”)

“We are prepared to enter a great new era in American aviation,” Trump burbled. “It’s time to join the future and make flights quicker, safer, more reliable… America is the nation that pioneered air travel and with these reforms. We can once again lead the way — our nation will move faster, fly higher, and soar proudly toward the next great chapter of American aviation.

“After billions and billions in taxpayer dollars spent and way too many years of delay, we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated system.”

Of course, as Fox News noted, “Both sides of the privatization debate say the system is one of the most complex and safest in the world.”

For-profit or not-for-profit?

Trump’s blueprint, which he cribbed from last year’s failed Congressional proposal, is in turn cribbed from the Canadian system.

As CNN Money observes, “Canada privatized its air traffic control in 1996, and the country’s aviation safety record and efficiency has been exemplary since then.” Which is why you’ll here a  lot of folks this week saying “Hey, the Canadians did it, and their private system works great!”

“But,” CNN Money continues, “Canada’s air traffic is roughly equivalent to that of Houston and Dallas combined, a far cry airport movie air traffic control privatizationfrom U.S. volume, say critics of privatization.”

Like Canada’s system, Trump’s proposal consists of a non-profit corporation run by a board consisting of industry insiders, although, as always “the details remain to be worked out.”

Among those details – how, exactly, would the billions of dollars in assets be handled? Would they just be handed over to the new corporation?

We can look to Canada, as well as France, Germany and the UK , which have also privatized their systems to one extent or another. But again, it’s a matter of scale: As USA Today noted, “The U.S. has more operations, more air traffic facilities and employs more controllers than the four other nations combined.”


How much are we talking? The Washington Post has a partial list: “The handover of about 300 airport towers and other flight tracking centers would be one of the largest transfers of U.S. government assets. About 35,000 workers, including 14,000 controllers and 6,000 technicians, would be affected.”

Transportation writer Ryan Felton adds that this “would represent one of the largest transfers of a government asset in U.S. history—taxpayers have spent north of $53 billion on these facilities in the last two decades.”

So what’s the complaint with the Air Traffic Controller system?

Don’t laugh.

After years of GOP cuts, budget sequester battles and government shutdowns – what USA Today describes as “Congress’ crazy, on-again, off-again budget process that disrupts long-term planning” – they’re whining that a private entity would have more stable funding!

And as those cuts have led to hiring freezes, mandatory overtime, mandatory furloughs and ugly staffing shortfalls, they have the nerve to say a private company would be more efficient!

And again, after making sure there was zero stability and tight staffing. they complain that the FAA hasn’t yet managed to upgrade the largest Air Traffic Control system in the world – from ground-based radars to satellite-based GPS.

CBS reported that “Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said instituting an independent entity to help transform the FAA will help the airport movie air traffic control privatizationATC ‘separate from the red tape’ and in turn ‘end a cycle of delay and disruption’.” Or perhaps Ms Chao could just ask her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to stop screwing with her funding?

Just as with health care, we’re looking at a GOP that starves the government system, and then points at the resulting chaos as proof that privatization is the only answer.

Well, there are lots of people who have other answers:

Department of Defense (via Aviation International News):

The establishment of a new entity separate of the FAA raises serious concerns regarding the disposition of certain unique National Defense procedures, programs and policy. It is significant to note that the DOD relies on FAA ‘command and control’ capabilities in the execution of the National Defense mission.”

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) added there is “total opposition” within the DOD to creating a separate ATC organization. “Besides being costly and disruptive in implementation…this scheme would upset the partnership between the FAA and a lot of the agencies of government.”

CNN Money:

“Between 2004 and 2016 Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration $7.4 billion to implement a modernization plan, called NextGen… Big parts of the plan are already online. More than 8,000 GPS-based routes into and out of airports are already up and running, and digital communications are in place at the nation’s busiest airports.

“…The FAA has defended its NextGen implementation. Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator, said NextGen has already provided airlines and travelers with more than $2.7 billion worth of cost savings. He said that number would grow to $13 billion by 2020 and to $160 billion by 2030. Airlines may want the FAA to modernize faster, but most of their planes aren’t even ready for a GPS system.”

Mark Baker, CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association:

Fox News reports that “…His organization is ‘open to proposals aimed at making the air traffic control system more efficient and delivering technology in a timely and cost effective manner’ but will not back policies that impose user fees on general aviation.”

“We applaud President Trump’s calls to invest and improve our nation’s infrastructure including our airports,” said Baker. “However, the U.S. has a very safe air traffic system today and we don’t hear complaints from our nearly 350,000 members about it.”

Washington Post:

“The U.S. air traffic control system, the world’s largest and most complex, is in the midst of an era of unsurpassed safety. There has not been a fatal crash of a domestic passenger airliner in the U.S. in eight years.

“Corporate jet pilots also oppose the plan as do their counterparts in general aviation. Both groups worry that user fees levied by a private corporation will drive up the cost of flying. Others argue that privatized governance gives too much control of the nation’s skies to a select few — most notably airline executives — for their own benefit.”


“For years Republican leaders in the house couldn’t even get such a proposal to a floor vote, in part because many of their own House members weren’t passionate enough about ATC privatization to risk political capital on the idea, especially since they knew full well that 20 or more Republican Senators opposed it. Now though, with Trump in the White House and eager to shake up Washington, Congressional Republicans and other advocates for change looking for a big win – any win – the political dynamics are changing. Still, getting ATC privatization won’t be a slam dunk. Much will depend on how hard Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who also happens to be wed to Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – chooses to push his more reluctant Republican senators to make ATC privatization happen.”

The Senate Transportation Committee

“The Committee strongly believes that air traffic control should remain an inherently governmental function where the Air Traffic Control Organization [ATO] is subject to on-going congressional oversight so that resource needs and activities are reviewed. The annual congressional oversight process is best suited to protect consumers and preserve access to urban, suburban and rural communities. …Given the growing congressional opposition to removing the ATO from the FAA, the Committee will prohibit funding for this purpose should there be any effort to bypass the will of Congress.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), ranking member on the Transportation Committee

“[They] have failed to answer the many serious questions regarding their plan. Any proposal to overhaul the existing ATC system must be thoroughly vetted, not rushed through Congress.”

Flyers’ Rights

“[Privatization amounts to] handing the airlines (for free) control over a core public asset, and providing them nearly unbridled power to Stop air traffic control privatizationextract new fees and increased taxes from passengers.”

Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization Spokesperson Julia Alschuler 

“This is yet another clear indication that Congressman Shuster’s privatization proposal is a far-flung fantasy that threatens jobs, hurts everyday Americans, and undermines the bipartisan efforts from the Senate. Despite special interests spending upwards of a million dollars to keep this proposal on life support, Appropriators again made clear that ATC should remain within the FAA in order to protect consumers and rural communities that depend on access to safe and reliable air travel.”

Read more on this subject in yesterday’s article on Air Traffic Control privatization.

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.