June 12, 2017

Dear FAA: We Need Some (Air)Space

Privatizing air traffic control has its critics, but the proposal got a much-needed boost from President Trump.

Proving yet again the federal government’s uncanny ability to transform billions of dollars of taxpayers’ hard-earned income into useless piles of poo, another spendthrift arm of the federal government — here, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — is drawing well-deserved fire for its fiscal buffoonery. On the heels of its teeth-jarring smackdown in May by the Transportation Department Inspector General (IG) for falling decades behind in its mandate to modernize the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) — the so-called “NextGen” NAS modernization program — the FAA suffered yet another blow last week, this time delivered by President Donald Trump.

No doubt the president was mindful of the reasons cited by the IG for the FAA’s failures: “Overambitious plans, unreliable cost and schedule estimates, unstable requirements, software development problems, poorly defined benefits, and ineffective contract and program management.” So Trump proposed separating air traffic control (ATC) from the FAA, privatizing the airspace-services component from the rest. The new service would be governed by a nonprofit organization with a board of directors made up of ATC-service stakeholders, leaving the FAA’s regulatory and standards-creating functions intact to form the “new” FAA.

This makes a lot of sense: Both ATC and NAS (sequencing and routing) are really services provided to users of the nation’s airspace. Privatizing them — as more than 50 other nations worldwide have already done — is the best way to ensure funds provided for such services are used efficiently. Meanwhile, the FAA would still oversee the national safety standards the privatized component would be required to meet.

The alternative of course is the status quo: taxpayer-supported FAA waste. We’ve endured that clown act for roughly half a century now. Alluding to this fact, the president bluntly noted, “We live in a modern age, but our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past. … At a time when every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air traffic control system still runs on radar and ground-based radio systems that they don’t even make anymore — they can’t even fix anymore — and many controllers must use slips of paper to track our thousands and thousands of planes that are up in the air.”

By “radar” the president was referring to the vast junkyard of antiquated ATC radars strewn about the U.S., and by “radio” he was alluding to the fact pilots must still talk to — versus datalink, text or auto-uplink/downlink information with — ATC controllers. That last fact may sound trivial, but as more transmitters from more aircraft crowd the limited communication channels remaining, less clearly communicated instructions and readbacks will be received by end-listeners. The result is, and will continue to be, delays, confusion and potentially dangerous situations, all generated from comm-crowding on inefficient voice channels. In contrast, silent, non-“comm-jammed” data-linked paths and text-driven instructions are much more efficient and clear, yet the U.S. is decades behind other nations in these capabilities.

The con-side argument to fee-based, non-profit-privatized ATC/NAS services is that the “little guy” — the private or recreational pilot — might get crushed by “fee-based” ATC/NAS services. The concern is understandable, but misplaced.

First, and frankly, it’s an argument based in emotion and fear, not in fact. The non-profit board will be composed of stakeholders, including those from general aviation. In fact, in the proposed board the air transport industry will hold no more than two of the 12 seats.

Second, no evidence has surfaced among any of the 50+ nations that have already modernized their ATC/NAS services that general aviation has suffered from the fee-based services themselves. That’s notwithstanding vague assertions about general aviation users “getting squeezed,” or anecdotal claims citing one country’s practices and then generalizing those practices to the U.S. using apples-and-oranges analogies.

Many in the general aviation community do not want user-based fees because they believe the current system “works fine” — for them. As Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President and CEO Mark Baker put it, “The U.S. has a very safe air traffic system today and we don’t hear complaints from our nearly 350,000 members about it.” But this statement dismisses the root issue: an outdated system, which currently causes the loss of billions of dollars in inefficiencies across the entire span of the most densely populated airspace system on the planet.

Of course, the “devil’s in the details,” but if the current, bloated FAA budget — which has doubled in recent years while maintaining the same number of air traffic control facilities — could be slashed in favor of a more efficient, higher-technology, privatized system, benefits would flow to every airspace user, not just “the big guys.” Yes, general aviation would then be held, like everything else, to fee-based use. But many other taxes, fees and costs would disappear virtually overnight — as they have in Canada and Europe. Canada, particularly, is instructive, as it enjoys ATC fees among the lowest in the world.

Were U.S. airspace not the most extensively used on Earth, perhaps such an outdated, Soviet-class bureaucracy as the FAA’s would be adequate to maintain and modernize U.S. ATC and NAS services. But considering the fact that almost 100,000 flights carry roughly two-million passengers across U.S. skies each day, yesterday’s systems surely cannot meet today’s demands — let alone tomorrow’s. Congress needs to approve privatizing U.S. ATC/NAS services. The sooner, the better.

> Editor’s note: Bastiat is a retired fighter pilot, and is a pilot with a major airline. He holds advanced FAA instructor certifications and was the Chief Pilot at an FAA-certified flight school. He’s been a pilot for over 30 years.

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