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Privatizing Air Traffic Control – why it has a good and bad story that has potential if done right!

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I was recently at Air Venture Oshkosh, and visited the opening day forum at 11:30 a.m. that included Jack Pelton, the Chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association.  The forum included several other industry alphabet soup personal from AOPA, NBAA, and GAMA.  It was an interesting forum because like all cases it just isn’t as easy as it appears.  From my perspective, I am ALL for privatizing ATC, because it allows technology to be used and implemented much faster than going through a bureaucratic process that government seems to like.  After being informed of the facts, I would have to agree with Jack Pelton that HR 2997 that was passed by the House committee has certain dangers to it.  So lets be careful here!

During the forum, the consensus was – no pilot that I know of wants to privatize Air Traffic Control.  Unfortunately, they never invited me to the microphone as there just wasn’t time to get everyone that was raising their hand to respond to this.  As a former corporate pilot with over 10,000 hours flight time, with International operations experience along with turbo-jet time, I would have thought throwing in my opinion would be an interesting contrast to the more recreational type pilot’s opinions. But I wasn’t able to express what I thought were some good points.  From the time I arrived at the forum, all I heard was the negative aspects as in the airlines will be in control of Air Traffic Control…which there may be some truth to the fact that the major airlines are pushing for a private air traffic control system, but how much power will they really have?

So how does all this get started? Privatizing air traffic control isn’t anything new, it has been brought up before but hasn’t quite been given too much consideration until now.  Why is this?  It is because President Trump has been a private citizen that has used his own airplanes for many years, and probably has asked the question to his company pilots – what is wrong with this system?  Is this the cause for my delays?  Never mind that a majority of delays are on the east coast where the weather can be low IFR and a high density of traffic, and this is where Trump lives and has always lived.  But…the translation has been messed up, as I am sure Trump’s pilots hacked on air traffic control systems are outdated, and Trump sees technology as easily capable of solving this problem, the mess being Congress sees it as a funding problem.

How to fund this is what it really gets down to, and this is Jack Pelton’s biggest concern, because what the fact of the matter is, this thing could end up being a user fees method for funding.  Never mind the FAA and everything in it’s domain for funding is being paid for by the aviation user, this is how it works!  Most people believe funding for the FAA comes from EVERY single tax payer in the United States, and this is NOT true!  All funding – although the FAA funding evolves from the DOT highway bills, etc….a way congress discombobulates everything, but the FAA and all it’s services under the umbrella, come from aviation taxes, whether it is by airline ticket taxes, or aviation fuel taxes, etc.  So the system for funding is in place properly, so why does the funding of this need to change?  Well, realistically at this time, it isn’t set to change.  HOWEVER, the way agencies work nothing is secure and this is the scenario that has general aviation concerned.

Who are the major players in the private ATC system?  The airlines are the ones doing the push for a privatized system, and they are the heavies promoting this move.  Why would they want privatized ATC?  They are graded on on-time performance, and feel that due to ATC causing the delays because of outdated technology, that this will help their on-time performance.  Currently they handle company communication and ATC clearances via a texting solution, and believe that more ATC communications can be completed more efficiently using these technologies.  They see the current system full of hurdles, the process for making changes and allowing innovation in as being a challenge…and I would have to agree with them as it seems like there is very little progress in solving some issues.  So…being that the airlines are the ones with the most clout, after all, they fund a substantial part of the budget for operating the FAA system, they sort of want their way.

So lets put this scenario out there – these airlines know some of the competition is corporate aviation and they want to eliminate corporate and private airplanes from “their airports”.  So how do they do this?  Add substantial fees for small airplanes landing at these airports…in fact, lets set up user fees to ANY airport that the airlines operate to and from.  Could this happen?  It has some merit to think this could become true, and that is why the concern of private ATC comes into play.  Instead of the entire FAA network and it’s budget for operating air traffic control under a fuel and ticketing tax system, lets add user fees for flight operations that will essentially make in financially unfeasible to have general aviation use some of these options.  Any time user fees have been introduced to general aviation, and there has been something like 18 countries that have tried this, the facts are general aviation pretty much falls off the face of the earth.  I have had this experience going to Canada, whereby for months after the visit I would get bills for calling flight service to open a flight plan, using ATC to get the clearance, etc.

Think about this.  Now they need people to figure out who used the radio, look up in the data base to find out where the aircraft is registered, create an invoice, and mail the fee out to the user.  Then, the user has to either cut a check or get the payment figured out by company expense or credit card, and send that in so that payment can then be processed!  Not very efficient AT ALL! So we all pay more and get nothing more in return.  These fees turned me off, I hated it as there was always the unexpected “fee” added, and I didn’t have any idea why I had a charge or invoice for something that was nonsensical.  So the fuel tax/airline ticket fee is the way to finance and fund the system, and it prevents the abuse of HUGE fees on some items that in reality prohibit a huge majority of using the airplane.  Hence, the countries that have gone to user fees have felt a DECREASE in revenue HUGE, because flight operations almost stop…which could be the intent of it all by the airlines.  So put a method of preventing that into the bill.

One other important item that is of concern that Jack Pelton put out there, is the Airventure Oshkosh scenario.  Looking at the flight operations that occur during this week of the convention, thousands of airplanes per day occur and everything is done safely and it all works out.  IF a private ATC is in order, there isn’t a company large enough to support anything like this IN addition to the liability that a corporation probably could afford.  In this case, ATC may not show up at all and it becomes a free-for-all, which at that point EAA would cancel any convention based on the safety factor.  So a large aviation gathering is no more.  EAA is a great organization, it provides many people with the dream of flight that would not otherwise find this hobby, and it also creates in young people the desire to learn how to fly, which is the future airline pilots of America.  This year at Airventure, the B-1 pilot that flew during the show was one of those kids that would visit Airventure, and look where he is today!

Regarding privatizing ATC, I am really all for it and here is why.  I recall back in the day when the Flight Service Stations or FSS were all over the country, and they would provide the live weather briefings over the phone, file flight plans, and offer traffic advisories at the locations of the flight service station.  There was generous staffing, including the technicians and everyone else associated with the operations on the field.  They closed all but a few of the flight service stations, and I was concerned about this, figuring more accidents would occur based on weather observations, etc.  What ended up occurring was that technology from other vendors but including the contractors that took over a lot of flight service products, it became apparent that this system would indeed work.  The ASOS and AWOS system was developed for weather observations, while the PC gave real time graphics including radar, surface observations, forecasts, prog charts, and including filing a flight plan that made it so easy to manage, that I never called for a live briefer again.  The good news?  The cost to the FAA for a weather briefing BEFORE privatization was over $18.00 per instance.  After this was changed to private contractors, the cost was less than $1.00 per briefing!  So maybe we should accept technology, just not have the user fees EVER implemented.  At that point, I think we would be cooking with gas!

2 Responses to “Privatizing Air Traffic Control – why it has a good and bad story that has potential if done right!”

  1. Rod Beck Says:

    I couldn’ help adding to Mike’s “real ity” take on this touchy topic. Frankly, I aquate this to a turnpike/parkway; one only pays when you one uses it-it’that simple! That said, it seems many recreational “pilots” feel they are entitled to a free pass? Airlines and corporate aviation a as “cost of doing business”!

  2. Rod Beck Says:

    I guess the ” LEFT” (recreaionl pilots?) can’t come up with ANY positive replys?

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