When the National Business Aviation Association’s annual convention and exhibition opens in Las Vegas on 10 October, the main talking point within the bustling halls and conference rooms will be the looming threat of air traffic control privatisation – an issue which is creating considerable concern and consternation within the US business and general aviation (GA) community.

US airlines have sought for decades to wrest control of the nation’s ATC system from its proprietor, the Federal Aviation Administration, and their efforts have always been met with vociferous opposition from the stoic GA industry and other outspoken groups and individuals.

However, there has been a palpable change in the political landscape in recent months, which has given supporters of ATC privatisation a renewed sense of optimism.

“The threat of a wholesale giveaway of the nation’s ATC system is greater today that it has ever been”, says Dan Hubbard, senior vice-president, communications for the NBAA, which is fighting ATC overhaul through a coalition called the Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA).

ATC privatisation


Hubbard puts his unease down to three “significant components”. First: a powerful airline lobby. Second: the chair of the influential House transportation infrastructure committee, Republican Congressman Bill Shuster, is a forceful and long-time proponent of ATC overhaul and is backing an industry-led bill to “corporatise” the system. The bill proposes to transfer the Air Traffic Organisation from the FAA to a new non-profit, private company governed by a diverse group of stakeholders. Third: the sell-off has the support of President Donald Trump.

At a 5 June press conference, Trump made his intentions clear. "For too many years our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac and a slowing of commerce and travel," he said. “Today, we’re proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally.”

Trump and other proponents of ATC privatisation argue that an industry-funded system would be better able to implement the multibillion-dollar modernisation known as NextGen. This in turn will reduce delays across the air traffic system and cut operating costs. Such an organisation, they argue, would also free ATC from the vagaries and unpredictability of government funding requirements.

Currently, the FAA needs authorisations to collect and disburse funds held in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which provides the majority of its budget.

Opponents of privatisation contend that the system works well in its current form, and, being a publicly owned asset, it serves the needs of all US citizens, and perhaps most significantly, has Congressional oversight.

In contrast, they argue that a private board would be accountable to commercial and not public interests. “We have already seen what happens when airline decisions are driven by the bottom line,” says the AAAA, whose members also include the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association.

“There has been a 20% cut in routes to smaller markets, seat space has shrunk to inhumane levels, and fees have risen. Under a privatised system, airlines would have free reign to cut routes, disregard customer complaints, and raise fees and taxes to outrageous levels.”



To allay the concerns of the business and GA community, Schuster’s bill includes several protections, but many are unconvinced that these will be long-lasting. “Take Congress out of the equation,” says the NBAA’s Hubbard “and our so-called protections will diminish entirely.”

He likens airlines’ control of the ATC system to “a fox guarding a chicken coop”. Hubbard says: “It will eventually find a way to get what it wants.”

To justify his concerns, Hubbard points to the proposed make-up of the 13-seat private company board on which GA representatives have been allocated only two places. “With the exception of the ‘at-large’ seats, the board will be dominated by the airlines and their employees, hub airports and the air traffic controller union, which will be all working in their commercial interests," he argues.

At the heart of industry’s concern is the potential restrictions that a board dominated by airline interests could place on airport access for GA aircraft, especially to those airports served by the major carriers or located in congested airspace.

Privatisation could also adversely impact the small regional airports which are served by business and GA aircraft and which make up the majority of the 5,000 airports in the USA.

“Unlike the airlines, GA aircraft don’t operate through a hub-and-spoke system, but use the vast number of small, community airports,” says Pete Bunce, chief executive of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

He argues that if airlines have overall control of US airspace, resources could be focused on big airports that “serve their bottom line”, at the expense of these small sites. “This could lead to ATC tower closures or reduced hours of operation,” Bunce fears.

Retaining unfettered access to the nation’s airports is described by Bunce as “the Holy Grail of business aviation”. The industry’s success, he notes, is built on providing an efficient, flexible and faster alternative to airlines or other forms of transport. “Remove these advantages and you remove its appeal,” he says.

Opponents of ATC privatisation fear the loss of congressional oversight will leave the industry vulnerable to exploitation. “We have robust system today that serves everyone,” says the NBAA’s Hubbard. “When these access restrictions occur, contacting your member of Congress will not help. The only recourse will be to go before an airline-dominated private board.”

Bunce’s disquiet is shared by NBAA president Ed Bolen. He cites a scenario in which Teterboro airport, a popular business aviation hub in the New York area, is shut down by a private ATC operator on days when bad weather limits access to LaGuardia or Newark airports.

Under the existing system, the NBAA can lodge a protest against such a decision with members of Congress, who can intervene directly with the FAA to reverse the decision.

“The bill on the table says, if you don’t like the way the air transportation system is working in the United States that has been built with our taxes over the last several decades, lawyer up and go to court,” Bolen says. “You no longer have a member of Congress that has any say in this issue.”

Another key concern with ATC privatisation is the introduction of user fees. The GA community has for decades resisted efforts to charge for air traffic services, choosing to contribute to the system through a fuel tax. While the proposed legislation offers protection against user fees, the industry is sceptical of this pledge. “Down the road, what is going to stop the private company from changing its mind, when they are seeking to raise additional funds?” asks Hubbard.

Industry also dismisses assertions by privatisation supporters that an industry-funded ATC system will speed up its modernisation to NextGen, GPS-based technologies and cut costs and delays across the air transportation system. “Let’s not conflate ATC privatisation with ATC modernisation,” says Hubbard. “The FAA has always delivered on what it says and wants to do. Furthermore, NextGen is on time and on budget.”

The AAAA goes even further. It says airlines are the “biggest contributor to delays” and accuses them of pushing a “false narrative to try to justify their privatisation scheme”.

To support its claim, the association cites US Department of Transportation data showing that airline-related issues, such as the computer glitches, mechanical breakdowns and a lack of flight crew – were the biggest cause of flight delays in the USA in 2015, with the number exceeding 323,000.

“We should not trust the airlines to manage the air traffic control system when they can’t manage their own internal systems,” says the AAAA.

Source: Flight International