ATC Privatization is Back in Play | Flying Magazine

ATC Privatization: It’s Back

Pros and cons of the reform effort will again be open for debate.

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The White House proposal focuses on ATC as just one of the DOT reforms needed.

White House photo

In late April, much of the industry began breathing a sigh of relief that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) last minute attempt to reintroduce a plan to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the FAA’s core infrastructure role was pulled by the Pennsylvania Congressman.

Now, just 60 days later, a White House plan called Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century has again reintroduced the idea, this time through a reorganization of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Although the plan says the DOT doesn’t really need a major reform, it does label the FAA’s operation of the nation’s air traffic control system as in need of a “significant realignment” within the DOT.

At the risk of sounding redundant, the plan says spinning off responsibility for ATC to a non-profit organization will “better enable our aviation system to respond to consumer needs and modernize services.” The separation will also allow the new ATC system to create “better governance structures and insolation from the political system while allowing them to better assess fees based upon actual usage of the system.” The plan says credibility for the idea is simple because approximately 60 other countries around the world have shifted their responsibilities to non-governmental providers.

As in earlier proposals, the new White House plan offers no details about how the separation would actually occur or when. That lack of details alone was enough to quickly mobilize the aviation-industry alphabet groups to pen a statement calling reintroduction of the ATC privatization/corporatization plan a “failed proposal.”

The group, comprised of the AOPA, NBAA, EAA, GAMA, HAI and the NATA said, “Instead of focusing precious time and resources on what amounts to nothing more than a distraction to the aviation community, the Administration needs to support a long-term FAA bill like those passed by the House of Representatives and now pending in the Senate. These bills will take practical and significant steps to address many critical issues like aviation safety and modernization, which includes accelerated advancement of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and needed aircraft certification and regulatory reform. Additionally, the Department of Transportation needs to continue its commitment to the NextGen Advisory Committee that fosters collaboration in an open and transparent manner and helps advance air traffic control modernization priorities and investments.”

The Reason Foundation’s director of transportation policy Bob Poole, a solid proponent of ATC corporatization, told Flying he too was surprised by the White House plan to reintroduce air traffic control reform. Poole said he quickly learned the Office of Management and Budget had actually, “been working on the effort for the past 18 months.”

In his monthly newsletter, Poole said changes to the ATC system are hardly a given even in a world where Republicans control all three branches of government. “In the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Congress today, good-government reforms that make a world of sense are likely to be championed by those of the President’s party and damned by the opposition. But even without that, there is the tyranny of the status quo. Congressional appropriations committee members from both parties, in both houses of Congress have opposed ATC corporatization due to loss of turf—the opportunity to make policy by having control of the purse strings.”

The newsletter also suggested that, “perhaps there is now a chance for the Senate to come up with its own version of corporatization, as part of the still-to-be-completed Senate FAA reauthorization bill. Or at the very least, to remove the Air Traffic Organization from FAA (and from civil service) as a stand-along DOT modal agency. That in itself would be a meaningful reform.”

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