Updated 18 February 2018.
If you ask a dozen pilots in America about what direction ATC reform should take, you will probably get one answer: not privatized! Pilot and aviation lobbyists have done a really powerful job of demonizing anything even so much as a conversation about challenging the ATC narrative. There are a lot of moving parts in this equation, and a second (or third) look is deserved to gain better perspective on the topic.
The idea to privatize ATC in the U.S. is not new; in fact, it has been analyzed and evaluated now for over three decades. This is due in no small part to the ATC strike in 1981, which began to reveal the fractured organization which was ATC in the FAA.
In the nearly four decades since the strike, consumers have sought better ways to conduct traffic in the skies. This issue was not a U.S.-specific issue; it was a global issue. Two decades ago, the Canadian government could no longer afford to update it’s aging ATC infrastructure and personnel. After some deliberation on how to proceed, the government eventually awarded a contract for a non-profit entity to take over the entire ATC system, which included infrastructure upgrades. The obvious advantage was that the cost of modernization was built into the contract, so the citizens of Canada enjoyed transparency in the process.
Great Britain’s NATS is organized a little differently, being a public-private partnership but the core idea of the Air Traffic System moving away from being strictly governing bodies is certainly there.
Today a number of nations have since decided to partition off air navigation services to private, or pseudo-private firms, including German, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, which is an utterly non-inclusive list. These countries, along with over 70 others, have made the move towards a corporate approach to air traffic management and the list will likely continue to grow.
Diving deeper: the organizational structure of the U.S. system
Where a lot of people get confused is the organizational structure of the FAA and how a shift towards privatization would actually affect the organization as a whole. The Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is “the operational arm of the FAA”. The ATO is just a single headquarters office of the FAA, one of fourteen. This is the organization which all ATC falls under, but it is hardly the lion’s share of the organization as a whole. The rest of the FAA is regulatory in purpose and would remain unchanged were ATC to go to the private sector.
A common scare tactic of the opposition to ATC reform has been to connect the ATO to the regulatory portion of the FAA, making the situation on out to be some sort of lawless wild, wild west, but that is simply not the case at all. All of the notable countries which have made the switch still retain regulatory agencies which govern and oversee aeronautical activities and most of those countries also adhere to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for regulatory guidance. Nav Canada is subservient to the Canadian Aviation Authority (CAA), NATS follows the legal guidance of UK Civil Aviation Authority, so there is absolutely no reason to believe that the FAA and a private ATC entity would not follow suit.
Compare and contrast
Another line often used in the argument is that the other nations which have gone to state-owned enterprises or private enterprises are considerably smaller or have lower traffic density and counts. This is true; Canada is similar in square mileage but the traffic density is a mere fraction of the U.S. Western European airspace, like that of the U.K. and Germany, are extremely dense and have very high traffic density, but again, the countries are tiny in comparison to the U.S.
My approach is different. I find it hard to believe that the traffic density is not proportionate to the population of the nations, and conversely that the budgets would not be as well. In other words, it should not matter how much larger the geographic area of the U.S. is over Germany, or how much denser the population is in the U.S. over Canada because the budget will be that much proportionally larger to pay a private contract.
Strangely, for all of the noise about how the U.S. NAS could never be safely transferred to private ATC, Canada has fully 75% of the traffic count that the U.S. controls and it has done an exemplary job of not only handling traffic, but also updating their system.
Fear and loathing in…
What I have personally witnessed, and I do mean among peers who I generally hold in very high esteem, is a universal primal fear of disbanding the status quo. Videos even cropped up from AirVenture of key EAA leaders denouncing this as a major step back for general aviation, even going so far as to insinuate it would be the demise of general aviation. Ironically, general aviation has been dying a slow death for quite a long time now, showing a nearly 10% reduction in total operations since 2009.
To me, this is far more earth-shattering than privatizing ATC services because the decline has had nothing to do with air traffic services; if you were to poke a finger at any part of the FAA to place blame, it would be the regulatory component which is going nowhere. Archaic regulations have hampered growth in general aviation for decades, not antiquated equipment. People are just not willing to spend well over $100 per flight hour on a tired Cessna or Piper anymore.
If the AOPA and EAA are really so serious about increasing access to general aviation, they would focus their energy on reducing the cost of private flying, i.e., de-regulating the industry. If they do that, people will come. People want to fly just as much now as did DaVinci, but they will settle for something else if the threshold of entry is untenable!