Should air traffic controllers be privatized?

An air traffic controller in the tower at Newark Liberty International Airport. U.S. controllers track 132 million flights annually. (JULIO CORTEZ/AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration is a huge bureaucracy with perennial funding issues. Among its many duties is overseeing thousands of air traffic controllers at hundreds of airports and planes ranging from private jets to passenger airliners to military transports.

Conversation is building in Washington on this question: Would the FAA be better able to handle its regulatory duties if the day-to-day operations of air traffic control were privatized?

There is no specific plan, and the accompanying issues are numerous: Would the private entity be a nonprofit? Who would run it? How would it sustain itself financially? Would it be as safe as the current system? Would the flying public benefit?

The answers depend on whom you talk to.

Commercial airlines like the idea. They think a new-model FAA would be more nimble and able to carry out much-needed technology upgrades more quickly.

Corporate jet owners and general-aviation fliers, on the other hand, oppose the idea because a new air traffic oversight entity, if funded by user fees, would cost them more.

The FAA itself opposes the notion.

"This is not a criticism of the FAA's current leadership," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told a congressional subcommittee last spring. "We believe the problems lie with the constraints and built-in impediments of the current [FAA] governance and funding structures."

Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would introduce legislation soon to create an independent or nonprofit corporation to oversee air traffic control, similar to what Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have.

The FAA's budget is now $16 billion, but its funding has been unstable amid political bickering in Congress, sequestration cuts, and, in 2013, furloughs of air traffic controllers in a partial government shutdown. The current authorization expires Wednesday.

"Any new model will need to continue running the safest, most efficient, most diverse, and most complex airspace in the world," National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi told Congress in June. "There is much at stake."

Since 1981, efforts to modernize the national airspace system by updating facilities and equipment have encountered cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance problems.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration developed several proposals to reform the FAA. In 2000, President Bill Clinton established the Air Traffic Organization within the FAA and created a chief operating officer to run the air traffic control system. But in the early 2000s, concern arose again about the FAA's ability to modernize.

In 2003, Congress created NextGen, a $40 billion program slated to be completed by 2025, to transition the nation's airspace from 1950s ground radar to satellite technology that would allow aircraft to fly more direct routes and navigate around inclement weather, reducing delays. As envisioned, the technology would allow every controller to see the exact position of every plane, no matter where the controller worked.

Airlines for America, a trade group, favors creation of a federally chartered nonprofit that would be financially self-sustaining and run like a business, with a governing board made up of aviation stakeholders. The FAA would retain the role of safety regulator.

Such a system would likely be funded by user fees from airlines, general aviation and private jet operators, and airfreight companies.

Could privatizing air traffic control cost travelers more in ticket prices?

"Passengers pay for it now. It's a matter of a different mechanism," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a Radnor group representing corporate travel managers. "In fact, consumers may pay less because corporate jet operators might be paying more.

"Today, it's funded under the gas tax. Tomorrow, it could be a user fee," Mitchell said. "That's why general aviation and the big corporations that fly G-4s and G-5s are opposed to it. They could see their costs go way up."

An August survey of 800 voters nationwide, conducted by Global Strategy Group for Alliance for Aviation Across America, the League of Rural Voters, and Air Care Alliance whose members include the general-aviation community, found that respondents, while generally supportive of privatizing some government functions or services, were opposed to privatizing the air traffic control system.

Fifty-five percent were opposed, and 29 percent supported turning operations over to a nonprofit, Global Strategy president Jefrey Pollock said on a recent conference call. Seven percent neither supported nor opposed privatization; 9 percent said they didn't know.

"The voters just don't want something privatized that they think is going well," Pollock said. "Eighty percent said they thought the FAA was doing a good job operating the nation's air traffic control system."

The FAA, in addition to air traffic control, issues and enforces regulations and standards for manufacturing, operating, and maintaining aircraft; certifies pilots and mechanics; inspects airplanes; regulates airplane maintenance; carries out programs to control aircraft noise; and oversees airport safety and standards for airport design and construction. It awards airport grants, sets aircraft noise standards, regulates unmanned aircraft (drone) flying, and monitors airplane repair stations.

One carrier, Delta Air Lines, says separating air traffic control operations from safety oversight does not make sense. The current system is safer, more cost-effective, and has fewer delays than any "alternative in the world," said Steve Dickson, a Delta pilot and senior vice president for flight operations.

Uprooting the system would result in "organizational disruption, silos between organizations, unforeseen transition costs, and a loss of experts and institutional knowledge," he said. "Air traffic control should remain part of the FAA, with greater focus on continuing NextGen implementation."

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has opposed taking air traffic control away from the FAA, saying the current system is not broken.

"The FAA has done a good job managing the airspace," Foxx said.

The union representing the country's 14,000 air traffic controllers said major change was needed to achieve stable funding. But union president Rinaldi questioned whether the much-discussed Canadian model, Nav Canada, could be scaled to the size required to handle the complexity and diversity of America's airspace.

U.S. controllers track 132 million flights annually, compared with 12 million in Canada. The United States has eight of the 10 busiest airports in the world, and 16 of the top 30, Rinaldi said.

Canada, whose continental landmass is more similar to the United States than France, Germany, or the U.K. is, has one: Toronto, ranked 15th.

"Before we can support any change, we must carefully examine all of the specifics," Rinaldi said. "Details matter in this process."


This story has been updated.