Proposal emerges to privatise US air traffic control

Met with equal parts support and consternation, a new bill would see the air traffic control system in the US joining that of Canada and the UK as a privately-owned corporation.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chair Bill Shuster is proposing a new plan to spin air traffic control infrastructure out of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) into a private, not-for-profit corporation. 

The Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorisation Act of 2016, or House Resolution 4441 proposes creation of an ATC corporation that would have nearly-sole jurisdiction over traffic control operations in US air space, sharing only with: the Department of Defense, as authorised by the President; entities delegated to perform air traffic services by the US government; and, entities contracted to perform services on behalf of the ATC Corporation. 

The bill would establish a board to oversee the new corporation as well as establishment of an advisory board populated by the Department of Defense, associated labour groups, operators of unmanned aircraft systems, aerospace manufacturers, airport owners and operators, pilots and commercial service airports. 

“The AIRR act provides the transformational reform necessary to bring our antiquated air traffic system into the modern era, and allow America to lead the world again in aviation,” Shuster said in a statement announcing passage through the house transportation committee on 11 February. 

The statement concluded with the committee noting that “establishing an independent ATC provider has become the standard across the world, and the US is one of the last industrialised nations yet to do so”. 

The bill has already garnered strong reactions on both sides of the issue

In a Congressional hearing on the issue, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) president Paul Rinaldi sited the sequestration of 2013 as a clear example that relying on the federal government to run air traffic control operations is behind “continued budget uncertainty”.

“The FAA scaled down all modernisation projects. The agency looked at closing 238 air traffic control towers and tried to close 149 of them due to purely financial reasons,” Rinaldi said. “Our 24/7 aviation system has been challenged by 23 extensions in authorisation, a partial shutdown, a complete government shutdown as well as numerous threatened shutdowns.”  

On the other hand, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) stands resolutely in opposition to the plan, with president and chief executive Ed Bolen lamenting the rejection of what he called “more targeted approaches” such as a proposal from House Democrat Peter DeFazio. 

While Bolen outlined a number of reasons his organisation is in opposition to HR 4441, or as he referred to it, “the fatally flawed privatisation scheme”, the central issue seems to be one of trust.

“We simply cannot trust the airlines to operate the system in a way that allows business aviation to continue to thrive,” Bolen said. 
In a recent study entitled The Costs of Privatising Air Traffic Control, Delta Airlines concluded that airline customers “could be on the hook to cover 20 to 29 percent higher costs” if the plan to privatise moves forward, citing a 30 percent rise in costs after a similar privatisation was rolled out in the UK and a 59 percent increase on ATC-related fees in the first six years of privatisation in Canada.

Another detractor is House Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Representative Rick Larsen, who fears that bipartisan reforms of the Federal Aviation Administration could be stalled by the privatisation. He also said he is not comfortable relegating the DoD role in protecting national airspace to the private sector.

The AIRR Act passed the house transportation committee by a vote of 32 to 26, and will next face the scrutiny of the full House.