GAO Releases Timely Report on ATC Corporatization

Report highlights the hurdles to privatization of air traffic control.

Air Traffic Control Privatization
There are many issues at play as legislators tackle the ATC privatization debate.Mark Brouwer/Creative Commons

In the wake of the recent Republican sweep of government in the United States, a change in the White House is expected to refocus energy on the topics that have been plaguing air traffic control in the nation for decades, such as an inconsistent funding stream and the snail’s pace of many capital improvement projects. The tempo of discussions is expected to pick up significantly as the clock ticks closer to next fall’s expiration of the FAA’s spending authority.

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its analysis of issues likely to confront the debate to privatize, or corporatize, the U.S. ATC function. Experts the GAO interviewed believe the issues surrounding the separation of ATC from FAA will focus on organizational management, funding and the actual efforts to complete the transition. The GAO research took a serious look at the lessons learned around the globe by countries such as the U.K., New Zealand and Canada when they broke their ATC functions away from the parent civil aviation organization.

The GAO says addressing organizational issues like employee morale and assignment of benefits may well affect the potential for success, both of the new ATC entity and activities remaining with the FAA, such as safety oversight. Another concern is the organizational structure chosen under which the new ATC function might operate. The GAO said “most experts indicated a user-fee system should be implemented if a change occurred,” an assumption quite a few members of the aviation industry would certainly refute. The GAO report did, however, acknowledge the difficulty of determining the level of any potential user fees. How to value the assets of the current ATC organization, the control towers, the radar rooms, the navaids and much more is another huge concern. Some early versions of ATC separation, for instance, simply showed the FAA handing over all assets with no taxpayer remuneration.

One of the most important highlights of the GAO report was the realization that “it would take a number of years to appropriately develop legislation, as well as to negotiate, plan, and implement a transition,” away from the FAA, a process that would entail “legal, financial and other costs (http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/680439.pdf).”