In the space of one week in February, a report calling for sweeping changes to Air Traffic Control, including taking control of ATC from the FAA and putting it in the hands of a non-profit organization funded by user fees, was released, just days after a survey was released showing that most voters oppose privatizing ATC.
While privatizing ATC has been brought up time and time again, it gained a lot of headlines last year when House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) proposed it as part of an FAA reauthorization bill.
It never made its way to a full vote of the Congress, but many of its proposals are echoed in a new report just released by the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent, non-partisan think tank, as well as President Trump’s recently released “skinny budget” for fiscal year 2018.
The Case for Privatizing ATC
In its report, “Time for Reform: Delivering Modern Air Traffic Control,” the Eno Center calls for taking air traffic control out of the FAA in favor of either a government corporation or an independent, non-profit organization. It also proposes a new funding structure that relies on user fees, rather than the current mix of taxes and general funds.
“Major changes are needed because the federal government has proved unable to expediently modernize ATC,” said Robert Puentes, the center’s president and CEO. “Unlike much of the developed world, the U.S. still relies on World War II-era radar to guide aircraft. Without significant changes, the American air traffic control system will not be able to cope with expected traffic growth, new complexities in the global air space, or critical upgrades.”
The report claims that spinning off air traffic control would create a more stable system than the current one, which is subject to political uncertainty.
A separate system would not depend on annual budget appropriations, nor be subject to budget sequesters and government shutdowns, according to the report. In the long run this will make running ATC cheaper, providing benefits for the economy and the traveling public, it adds.
“Only an entity outside the direct control of government will have the necessary independence to implement modern technologies at the pace needed to meet demand,” said Rui Neiva, the report’s co-author.
As a separate entity, a spun-off ATC would have the ability to go to the capital markets for funding, something it cannot do now, he noted.
“Reform will shield the ATC from political instability, government shutdowns and hiring freezes,” he said. “Plus it will allow major infrastructure investments at no cost to the taxpayers.”
Instead, the corporation will be a “self-governing entity funded by user fees,” he explained. “Every time an airplane departs from an airport or flies in our airspace it would pay a fee.”
The independent ATC would be governed by stakeholders in the system, including the airlines, ATC officials, pilots’ unions, business aviation, general aviation, and the federal government.
Not surprisingly, a fan of the newly released report is Shuster, who noted there’s no reason for ATC to be handled by the government.
“Air traffic control is a high-tech service for managing the flight of an aircraft from one airport to another. It’s a technology service, and as the Eno Center has highlighted, it doesn’t need to be a government function,” he said.
“(This) report echoes the findings of other studies that FAA reform will bring greater efficiency and stability to the aviation system, lower costs, and keep flying safe, while simultaneously letting the FAA focus on its most important missions — safety and certification of aircraft and aircraft equipment,” Shuster continued.
Also not surprisingly, the biggest opponent to privatizing ATC is general aviation.
“GA has been the main stumbling block,” Neiva said. “It has been the most vocal.”
“Their concern is that they will have to pay user fees,” he continued. “But GA will be completely exempt from user fees.”
Many in GA also are worried that an ATC controlled by the airlines would curb GA access to portions of the nation’s airspace, he added.
“That fear has not played out in other countries where ATC is privatized,” he said.
Pulling ATC out of the FAA — including its equipment and more than 30,000 employees — will not be a quick process. Neiva estimates it will take about three years for a transition to be complete.
“User fees need to be set and it all needs to be approved by the Department of Transportation,” he said.
Employees will transfer to the new corporation, but will keep their union rights, seniority, pensions and other benefits accrued while working for the FAA, he noted.
And if they don’t want to transfer? They can stay at the new FAA, which would remain as the aviation safety regulator providing oversight, he said.
He said the proposal is very similar to ATC in Canada, but there are some differences. NAV Canada’s board has more seats for the airlines, as well as a number of seats reserved for people outside of aviation.
“But everything else is very similar,” he said. “It relies on user fees and allows it to go to the capital markets. If the U.S. system is as successful as Canada’s, we will be in good hands.”
The Case Against It
But a majority of Americans already think the system is in good hands.
A recent survey released by the Alliance for Aviation in America found that more than 60% of voters recently polled oppose privatizing ATC by “taking it from the FAA and turning it over to a non-profit corporation.”
The telephone survey was conducted by Global Strategy Group between Jan. 30 and Feb. 5, with pollsters calling 800 registered voters nationwide. The margin of error on the survey is +/-3.5%, pollsters noted.
One of the first questions in the survey asked voters to rate different government agencies.
“The FAA stands at a very high number at 74% positive, only 10% negative,” noted Jeff Pollock, president of Global Strategies Group.
That compares to a 58% positive rating for the TSA or a 52% positive rating for the SEC, he noted.
The following question “went a little deeper,” with pollsters asking voters, “How would you rate the job the FAA does operating the air traffic control system?”
What they found is that the FAA has 88% job approval on that point, with only 8% saying something negative. A third of voters — 34% — gave the FAA an excellent job approval rating in terms of how they operated air traffic control, according to the survey.
“The voters are clear, they think that the FAA is doing a good job,” he said. “Not surprisingly, when you get that many folks who believe that an entity is doing a good job, it’s very rare that you want to make changes.”
The pollsters did ask about privatization. The first question delved into whether people were in favor of privatizing government functions in general, with voters asked: “Do you generally support or oppose privatizing government functions or services, which is defined as allowing private entities to provide services currently or traditionally provided by the government?”
“On that question, you get a real split,” Pollock said, noting “43% of the voters nationally support privatization in general, while 46% oppose. You can see that the voters don’t lock in diametrically for or opposed to privatization as a sort of general thesis.”
While voters are about evenly split on the general idea of privatization, that changes dramatically when talking about the FAA, according to the survey.
When asked about the proposal to take ATC from the FAA and hand it over to a non-profit corporation, the voters were “crystal clear,” Pollock said.
In fact, 62% of the voters oppose privatizing the FAA, while only 26% support it, he said.
Breaking down the numbers, the survey found that 60% of men oppose privatization and 63% of women.
For voters under 55, 61% oppose it. For those over 55, it’s 64%.
When broken down by party affiliation, 75% of Democrats oppose it, while 54% of Independents and 51% of Republicans oppose it.
“Here is probably the most interesting thing,” Pollock pointed out. “We asked people who they voted for in the last election. Among people who say they voted for Hillary, 76% oppose privatization. That lines up very well with that 75% of self-identified Democrats who also oppose it. Among Trump voters, they oppose privatization 49% to 39%. Even Donald Trump’s own voters say that privatizing the FAA is not something that they support.”
“Donald Trump pledged to fix what’s broken in Washington D.C., he didn’t pledge to fix what’s not broken,” he continued. “The voters want him to fix the things that are broken. They don’t think this is one of those things. In fact, they’re thinking this is working darn well.”
WHERE DO YOU STAND?
What do you think? Are you for or against privatizing ATC?
Whichever way you lean, it’s important to know that the new Trump budget closely mirrors the Eno report, calling for ATC to be spun off from the FAA.
Additionally, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has begun holding hearings and gathering input for an FAA reform and reauthorization bill for this Congress.
The last bill approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama reauthorized the FAA through Sept. 30, 2017.