ATC Privatization

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) issued a press release yesterday, stating its opposition to new legislation aimed at privatizing the United States Air Traffic Control (ATC) system.

The 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act proposes sweeping reforms to Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) funding and programs, as well as the creation of a new non-profit entity responsible for running the country’s ATC system. The bill comprises the most significant aviation policy reform since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

Why Are These Reforms Being Proposed?

The United States is the last major developed country which has not yet separated ATC from its aviation safety regulator. Critics of the status quo feel the FAA’s risk-averse culture has led to a loss of management expertise, unnecessary bureaucracy and a lack of customer focus.

Modernization of the ATC system has been a work in progress for several years now, with the FAA’s plans for the NextGen system first initiated over 20 years ago. The program has missed several key deadlines for delivery, and is reportedly billions of dollars over budget.

A detailed review by the National Research Council from April 2015 criticized the FAA’s attempts at NextGen implementation. Multiple reports by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, released in 2015, 2016, and 2017, suggested that the FAA’s bureaucratic issues leave the agency unable to modernize ATC, and that ongoing attempts to do so will result in significantly increased costs.

The current system relies on technologies which were developed in the 1960s. Although the US ATC system is generally considered one of the most reliable and efficient in the world (especially given the volume of traffic handled), an upgrade to infrastructure is required in order to ensure smooth operations for many years to come.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster unveiled his revised AIRR bill yesterday, as a long-term measure to reform FAA funding after the current budget extension expires at the end of 2017.

Concern from General Aviation Groups

In a strongly-worded statement, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen has reiterated the group’s opposition to the proposed changes. “As Congress debates FAA reauthorization, NBAA has continually supported measures aimed at aviation system modernization. It is imperative we ensure the U.S. has the world’s best air-transportation system, today and in the future,” said Bolen. “But let’s not confuse modernization with privatization. Our nation’s ATC system is and always will be a monopoly, and that monopoly must operate in the public’s best interest. This bill proposes to strip control over that monopoly from the public’s elected representatives, and essentially hand sweeping authority to a group of private parties, which will likely make decisions based on their business interests.”

One of the main concerns expressed by many in the general aviation community is the possibility that access to the nation’s airports and airspace could become more restricted.

“For a variety of reasons, we know that the citizens, companies and communities relying on general aviation for connectivity, civil services and other needs will be the ones most at risk if America’s aviation system is turned over to a private board largely unaccountable to Congress,” Bolen continued. “NBAA has long supported implementation of targeted solutions to identified problems to ensure America’s aviation system remains the world’s best in all aspects. What we don’t support is a plan to give away control over the nation’s aviation system.”

Joint Position Statement from Aviation Groups

In response to yesterday’s developments, the NBAA has signed a position statement opposing ATC privatization, together with five other aviation organizations. The groups involved include the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the Helicopter Association International (HAI), and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA).

The statement outlines their shared concerns on the proposals. “After a thorough and detailed review of Chairman Bill Shuster’s proposal to remove our nation’s air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we have concluded that these reforms, while well intentioned, will produce uncertainty and unintended consequences without achieving the desired outcomes.”

The statement continues “We are committed to addressing needed reforms that create predictable and stable funding for the FAA, including biennial budgeting, consolidating unneeded and outdated facilities, procurement, and certification reforms, and putting to use some of the balance from the Airways and Airport Trust Fund to expedite technology deployment. We are ready and willing to work with all industry stakeholders and Congress to advance the consensus needed to improve our current system.”

The full text of the position statement can be read here.

Mounting Opposition to ATC Privatization Plans

In addition to the concerns raised by aviation groups, many individuals and organizations on both sides of the political divide, as well as business leaders around the country, have questioned the concept of ATC privatization. The NBAA has set up a “Contact Congress” resource on its website, and is urging members to make their voices heard on the issue.

The subjects of ATC privatization and FAA reform are certainly inspiring lively debate, and some restructuring of the current system seems inevitable. General aviation organizations will be paying close attention, to help ensure equal access for all sectors of the aviation community.