Elephants in the Room: ATC Privatization

Since I live near Houston, I am directly impacted by the air traffic control system, whether I directly use the services or not. Houston has two interlocking sections of Class B airspace, one protecting Houston Hobby (which is only 8nm from my home airport at Pearland) and the other protecting Houston Intercontinental, also known as Bush. Additionally, I often have my airplane serviced up at the Denton, TX airport where a Flight Design approved mechanic resides; and, when I do, I use flight following from takeoff to landing to both speed up my trip (by avoiding a very large sidestep of Class B airspace around Dallas’ west side) and to keep it safer. I often travel to Huntsville AL for volunteer work primarily at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and have a new grandson south of there and a granddaughter (on the way..three more weeks!) north of there in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I often use flight following on those trips as well, and nearly always use Class C services to get into Huntsville Executive. With only a few exceptions, I have found the air traffic controllers friendly and easy to work with and a great asset in protecting me and my aircraft. So, I have a stake in what happens to the air traffic control system; it directly affects my efficiency, my economies, and…most importantly…my safety.

The current FAA reauthorization bill has passed the Senate but is stalled in the House. It is being held hostage because the chairman of the Transportation Committee, Rep Bill Shuster, wants to hand over control of the ATC system to a private “non-profit” corporation. He says the FAA is not moving fast enough on Next Gen ATC improvements and, as we all know, private industry can always do things better than government (a line that never takes into account things like the big banks collapsing the economy, the big tobacco companies having to be reigned in to improve public health, or why we’re seeing all those millions of airbags in autos being recalled). While this whole thing smells like a dead fish to me, for reasons I’ll get into later, the thing I really love about the recent efforts to move the system to user fees or privatization is the total lack of safety studies that go along with them.


(And if government never does anything right, do we really want a piece of the government, i.e., the Congress, deciding what to do with ATC? Kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?)

Indeed, a report by the Government Accounting Office pointed out the risks and issues associated with the transition. The report, entitled “Federal Aviation Administration: Preliminary Observations of Potential Air Traffic Control Restructuring Transition Issues” can be found here. I’m going to center my discussion of it to the overall safety impact of the transition, whether as a result of the privatization or the imposition of user fees.
“Preliminary discussions with experts have raised several transition issues that would need to be considered when separating safety oversight from ATC operations, such as (1) challenges with delineating roles and responsibilities, (2) potential impacts to coordination, and (3) potential impacts to the remaining safety regulator.”

The FAA’s current structure allows integration of flight standards procedures and approval of new procedures, something that could be adversely affected by splitting off ATC. Even if it can be done, no work has been done to figure out how it can be done or the time necessary to make it work. (This needed to have been done as part of the process of preparing this legislation; the Transportation Committee could have asked for this instead of just trying to ram the bill down everyone’s throats.) Further: “according to experts, how decisions about safety criteria, standards, and processes (e.g., separation standards for runways) would be made and who should be involved in that decision-making process would need to be addressed. Some experts stated that a process will need to be put into place to address disagreements between the safety regulator and the ATC entity regarding safety decisions.”

(Not only that, but what are the legal aspects of pilots dealing with an ATC entity that is now a private corporation? If this change were to happen, it would take a Pilots Bill of Rights 3 to address them.)

Additionally, here’s what the report says about the impacts of user fees: “Currently an array of users access the U.S. airspace, and the costs of the system are paid by these users through a series of taxes and fees paid as described above. If a system of user fees were to replace the current financing structure, there may be differential effects of the new funding structure across these different users. As we previously noted, a transition issue identified through our preliminary discussions with experts is how any user fee structure might differentially affect varied users and, in turn, how this would impact the use of the airspace. For example, some of the experts we spoke with noted that, depending on how user fees are structured, it is possible that general and business aviation might see their contribution to the cost of ATC services rise and that this increase could reduce the use of the airspace by these users.”

(Might see their contribution rise? Might!? It’s a certainty…)

And, here, ladies and gentlemen, we see…or miss seeing..one of the elephants in the room, i.e., the one unexplored question that never gets asked when we hit this topic: What is the impact on general aviation safety when users avoid ATC system services, especially in airspace underneath the floors of Class B airspace that are already congested?

And there is another elephant: “In addition, another concern raised by experts during our interviews is that small and rural communities could be negatively affected by a restructured ATC. According to one expert whom we spoke to, rules need to be in place for the ATC entity to not restrict access so that only high value customers, such as commercial airlines are served; access should be maintained for small communities and other services, which are important but don’t make a lot of money.”

So, all this is being ignored while the current FAA reauthorization is being held up to try to shove it into it (and, btw, the GAO report said that privatizing ATC could DELAY Next Gen improvements, which contradicts Shuster’s reasoning for why it’s needed). I always look sideways at people trying to push things through in a hurry, because they’re usually trying to keep you from looking too closely at it. That, and the following report by Politico about Rep Bill Shuster’s personal ties to one of the prime organizations supporting this legislation, make it smell like a dead fish to me.

Read the reports before you let them force us to take this fish home. If it really is as smelly as I think, we might not ever get rid of it.