Is Privatizing Air Traffic Control Services an Improvement?

Recently both the President and Congress have pushed for privatization of Air Traffic Control in an effort to what some see as a broken and antiquated system, and to stimulate modernization from RADAR to a GPS based system. As a long time user of the current air traffic system, I applaud the modernization efforts, but am not sold on the idea that this proposed path will achieve the desired effects.

Over the last decade, I have participated in, and led, many FAA airspace modernization efforts, including NextGen and Metroplex. All of these efforts have moved away from older technology and towards a more modern airspace system. The results of using new technology and GPS in our current airspace system are measurable, repeatable, and must continue to be pursued. However, the time frame of such improvements, admittedly, can feel as if they are measured in glacial timescales and this leads to the angst of many seeking some changes. I have been one of those frustrated stakeholders in the past. However, the air traffic system is a massive and complex being.

A common mistake in viewing and seeking changes in the current system is that of viewing a sought change in a local-only perspective. It is easy to look up to the sky and think: “There is a lot of empty sky up there. Why can’t we just move a flight path over there, or use the technology in my cell phone to help navigate.” It should be remembered that the FAA does not just represent one stakeholder of the aviation system, but instead, have been tasked with representing all stakeholders. Movement of an airspace structure or flight path has to be viewed in totality and not locally. Making changes to aircraft navigation systems have to be viewed from the general aviation perspective to commercial airlines. This is a daunting task and can lead to delays. Having said that, I have also witnessed some cultural issues in the FAA where departments are risk averse and siloed. This is a problem just as difficult as managing broad changes that affect all stakeholders. How will privatization affect this?

The idea of privatization is one approach to addressing a broad array of issues affecting the current air traffic system. Perhaps individual corporations bidding on these opportunities will drive down operational costs on the system as a whole. However, a few questions arise that should be addressed as this concept moves forward: 1) Who will maintain a national standard for air traffic? Who will enforce this? 2) How will coordination be seamless across different air traffic service providers? Will their systems be cross compatible? 3) While these new organizations will provide air traffic services, will they also be mandated with making improvements to the system? Will they also be mandated to address noise and other environmental concerns? 4) How will privatization improve the acceleration of new technology in current and future aircraft? Will the FAA still maintain control of this responsibility? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 5) Who, and how, will the current level of safety be maintained and improved?

There are many considerations in this proposal that must be fleshed out further. I used to think this whole process was “simple”, then I became deeply involved in these processes around the world working with many different cities, airlines, airplane manufacturers, and governments. Aviation is a massively complex system with significant safety implications. If this path is to be pursued, all stakeholders must maintain a methodical and pragmatic approach to this as the law of Unintended Consequences will surely be a constant challenge.

About the Author: Grady Boyce is a current and active Captain for a major airline flying the B-737. He has participated in, and led, airspace developments and ATC modernization efforts on all continents except Antarctica. Grady is a consultant to BridgeNet bringing flight procedure development, ATC expertise, and TERPS assistance into their current and future activities.