Sides Put Spin on DOT ATC Privatization Report

One report, two very different conclusions.

A new Department of Transportation Inspector General report that studied the differences between ATC in the United States and countries like Canada and the UK, which have not-for-profit privatized ATC corporations, found that there are, well, differences. The political spin that’s being applied to the rather innocuous report, meanwhile, is making us dizzy.

The report’s authors state up front that they aren’t making any recommendations about whether privatizing ATC in the United States would be a good idea. That didn’t stop folks on both sides of the contentious issue from putting out press releases claiming that the report proves why their argument is right.

Rep. Bill Shuster, head of the House Transportation Committee, used the report to bolster his argument that ATC functions, including NextGen reform, should be split from the FAA and privatized. Here’s what he had to say:

“If we want to finally modernize our aviation system, reduce delays, and generate more efficiencies in our skies, we can’t continue to just tinker around the edges. We have to take action that transforms the way we do things. Today’s DOT IG report shows that other major industrial countries have successfully separated their ATC functions without negative impacts to safety, and these systems are able to make enough money to be self-sustaining.”

Referencing the same report, the head of the National Air Transportation Association, Thomas Hendricks, came to a polar opposite conclusion:

“The DOT IG’s report validates why Congress should proceed very cautiously in contemplating massive structural changes to America’s air traffic control, acknowledged as the world’s safest, largest and most complex. This report clearly demonstrates these international air traffic control systems are much smaller and less complex than our own. Also reported by the IG, these air traffic control providers, unlike the FAA, ‘do not embark on large, comprehensive modernization efforts such as NextGen transformational programs or conduct extensive aviation research and development.'”

One report, two very different conclusions. So who’s right?

While the report avoids taking sides, it does caution that the size and scope of air traffic control in the United States versus the countries studied is very different and that key questions still need to be answered before making any such sweeping changes.

From the report’s conclusion:

“The unique organizational and financing systems implemented by other countries demonstrate that there are different ways to structure and operate a nation’s air traffic control system. Should the FAA, Congress, and aviation stakeholders move forward to consider different approaches regarding the organization, structure, and financing of our nation’s air traffic control system, there are several significant policy questions that would influence decisions, given the unique characteristics of the U.S. system. But above all, safety must continue to be the United States’ number one priority in overseeing our National Airspace System.”

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