Air Traffic Control

US President Donald Trump announced a key pillar of his $1 trillion infrastructure plan on Monday, and called for the privatization of the country’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system. “We’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work,” Trump said of the current Air Traffic Control organization, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Whilst the majority of commercial airline companies may agree with this proposal, several groups have raised concerns about the potential impact on General Aviation.

What is the Proposal?

Trump’s plan would involve handing over the United States ATC infrastructure to a private, nonprofit entity. The new organization would have its own board, made up of airlines, unions, airports and federal officials. The administration has not yet presented details on exactly how this body would operate, but claims the change would reduce costs and delays, as well as improving safety and efficiency.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an autonomous authority which is free to manage its own finances could modernize more quickly. The FAA would oversee the new body, which would be funded through user fees (such as takeoff and landing charges), rather than the taxes on passenger tickets and fuel that currently fund the US aviation system. The Trump administration estimates that it should take around three years to move responsibility for Air Traffic Control from the FAA to this new organization.

The full text of the White House proposals can be read here.

Is There a Precedent?

Many other countries around the world have successfully privatized their ATC operations. New Zealand was the first to end its government’s role in ATC, in the late 1980s. Australia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom followed suit soon afterwards. US airline companies frequently cite Nav Canada, the Ottawa-based nonprofit that has been overseeing Canadian air traffic since 1996, as the most successful example of privatization.

US Representative Bill Shuster tried to initiate a move towards the Canadian model last year. However his bill didn’t reach a vote, due to a lukewarm response from both Democrats and Republicans. Shuster was present at the White House ceremony on Monday, when President Trump announced the revived proposal.

Is Privatization Workable in the United States?

The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots’ union in the US, says that in order to gain support from its members the new system must be as safe as the current one, structured as a not-for-profit and financed by a fair fee structure for all airspace users.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which represents more than 20,000 workers involved in American ATC, says any change must protect employee rights, keep safety and efficiency as top priorities, ensure a stable funding stream, and maintain a consistent level of service to all aviation segments. The union supported Bill Shuster’s 2016 bill, and has stated it is looking forward reviewing the specifics of the new proposals.

Reaction from the General Aviation Community

Many rural airports, smaller airlines and charter operators in America are less enthusiastic about the plans. Most are concerned about the new user fees structure, which could place a greater burden on smaller operators. These companies do not benefit from economies of scale, and are frequently working on small profit margins.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) has issued a strongly-worded statement criticizing the plans. The association has called for the focus to be on modernizing the current infrastructure, rather than privatization. Their main objection is that the commercial airlines will have too much influence, gaining more control over the ATC system and effectively shutting out smaller operators.

“We are deeply concerned with the president’s call for ATC privatization – a concept that has long been a goal of the big airlines. No one should confuse ATC modernization with ATC privatization – the two are very different concepts.” said Ed Bolen, President and CEO of the NBAA. “We are concerned that those left behind under ATC privatization would be the citizens, companies and communities that rely on General Aviation for all manner of services.”

To read the full NBAA statement, please click here.

Several other aviation groups are also opposed to the plans, and together have sent a joint letter to the White House highlighting their concerns. Their full letter can be read here.

What does the Future Hold for American Air Traffic Control?

Whether the Trump administration’s proposals come to fruition or not, the US ATC system is due for an upgrade. The FAA has been working on the $35 billion NextGen digital system for several years, which will replace radar-based aircraft tracking with GPS and introduce more advanced flight planning software. These improvements will enable airlines to plan more direct, faster flight paths, increasing efficiency across the board.

The target for the roll-out to be completed is 2030, however the program has already missed several key deadlines. Advances in artificial intelligence technology could also do away with some of the more routine elements of Air Traffic Control.

Regardless of which body will be overseeing ATC operations, it seems inevitable that changes are coming to how American airspace is managed. The General Aviation community is united in its hope for a fair future and equal opportunity for all stakeholders.