Myths and Facts Surrounding Air Traffic Control Corporatization

By Bill Deere, Executive Vice President of Government and External Affairs

As the debate heats up over whether or not to corporatize our nation’s air traffic control system, one of the biggest challenges facing general aviation is overcoming proponents’ various assertions that I categorize as “myths,” that through deliberate, endless repetition, can become “facts” to policymakers. It’s an impressive laundry list of dubious assertions and, if left unchallenged, will create a groundswell of support for a user fee-funded air traffic control system. As NATA members prepare to come to Washington, D.C. for our annual Aviation Business Conference, they will have the opportunity to meet with Capitol Hill offices. It’s important that Members of Congress and their staffs understand many of the arguments offered by ATC corporatization supporters cannot stand the sunlight of fact. Let’s look at a few of the most popular ATC corporatization myths.

First is the notion the United States is actually behind the rest of the world because we have not yet corporatized. Proponents of corporatizing air traffic control often hold up the number of privatized air traffic control systems around the world as “proof.” However, a close look reveals the size of these systems and the level of investment are significantly smaller than in the U.S. system, in some places allowing for the creation of minimal levels of surveillance where none had previously existed. My colleague Rebecca Mulholland attended a recent Hill briefing hosted by ATC proponents, where this myth was exposed by the Democratic professional staff of the House Transportation Committee. In fact, proponents were forced to admit, the only countries that really matter in this regard are Canada and those in Western Europe. A 2015 U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) report clearly demonstrates these international air traffic control systems are much smaller and less complex than our own. More devastating, the IG (who, believe me, is no fan of the FAA) also reported these air traffic control providers, unlike the FAA, “do not embark on large, comprehensive modernization efforts such as NextGen transformational programs or conduct extensive aviation research and development.” Instead, as the report notes, these air traffic providers, including NavCanada, “modernize” by relying on small, incremental changes using off-the-shelf technology.

Another sound bite, tossed around Washington that has taken on a life of its own, refers to our air traffic control system as based on “WW2 technology.” We recommend proponents of corporatizing ATC spend some time in any enroute center in the country, the FAA Command Center in Warrenton, VA, the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ, or any of a host of truly, high-technology Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities around the nation. Sure, radar is certainly one of the technologies used to provide surveillance of aircraft, but other surveillance technologies, including GPS-based ADS-B, and multi-lateration, are also being “fused” with radar data at these high-tech facilities. For a point of reference, we also continue to use electricity, first introduced into our homes in the late 19th century. So, just because a particular technology endures, does not necessarily minimize its relevance.

By far the most annoying myth of the corporatizers is that FAA’s current modernization program, NextGen, is a failure. Really? A recent FAA report to the Senate Commerce Committee notes the turning point in the NextGen program came in 2010 with the establishment of the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC). This is the industry-wide, aviation stakeholder group that, for the last seven years, has been driving where and when the NextGen technologies are deployed. By utilization of the NAC, through 2016, the FAA and industry have a combined 96.2 percent (102 of 106) success rate on meeting and delivering expected outcomes for each commitment. On top of that, 60 of the commitments were completed ahead of time. Through 2016, the entire system enjoyed $2.72 billion in savings in passenger time and occupant safety, as well as reduced fuel and aircraft operating costs. By 2030, total NextGen benefits are expected to be $160.6 billion, based on an investment cost of $35.8 billion by the FAA and the aviation industry. If only the rest of the government could “fail” like this. In other words, ATC corporatization proponents are using old facts to justify their radical agenda.

Let me close with the myth that I believe poses the greatest risk to general aviation. The notion that an ATC corporation with a diverse board of directors, representing all aviation stakeholders, guarantees its fairness. Air traffic control is not a competitive business but rather a monopoly. How exactly is it fair to the traveling public to turn the public airspace over to a group of special interests? More importantly, follow the money. While such a board may include a diverse group of aviation stakeholders, 90% of the corporation’s revenues will be derived from a very small number of those stakeholders— commercial and cargo airlines. Is it reasonable or realistic to expect the CEO of an ATC corporation to ignore or dismiss the views of this small group that represents such an outsized portion of the corporation’s revenues? The decisions that will undermine general aviation will not come in high-stakes board meeting confrontations but, incrementally, every day, through calls to the CEO from these big money interests.

If you have read this far, I ask you to go a little further on behalf of aviation businesses. NATA has recently made changes to its website, making it incredibly easy for you to share your concerns over proposals to corporatize air traffic control with your elected officials. So go to www.nata.aero/actioncenter, it’s fast, it’s painless and it will be a tremendous help in protecting general aviation in America!

Republished from the 2017 Q2 Aviation Business Journal.

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