Some thoughts on ATC privitization.

by w3woody

Here’s Wired.com’s summary of the current Trump proposal to privatize air traffic control: So What’s The Deal With Air Traffic Control Reform?

Basically the proposal to privatize air traffic control is similar in principle to the proposal to privatize air traffic control offered a few years ago under the Obama Administration. The devil, of course, is in the details, but with the terms being bounced around it sounds like the proposal is similar: user fees, rather than taxes on fuel, would be used to finance the newly created public/private corporation that handles air traffic control. ATC would then become like the U.S. post office: a private organization under government control financed by user fees.

I have a few thoughts about this.

The United States leads the world in ‘freedom of the skies’. If you look at every other country which has privatized their air traffic control systems, the cost to general aviation has skyrocketed–effectively limiting access to the richest of the rich. It’s why the United States has far more general aviation pilots than Europe.

User fees may make the airport environment far more dangerous. To understand this, understand that when you fly your own airplane, if you take off from an ‘uncontrolled’ airport (which makes up the vast majority of the 15,000 or so airports in the United States), and you land at another ‘uncontrolled’ airport–you can do this entirely without talking to air traffic control. Only if you fly within the controlled airspace near a larger airport or decide to take off or land at a controlled airport do you ever have to talk to the tower of that airport.

That means there are literally thousands of airplanes flying around there, flying without flight plans, without communicating with air traffic control, without even showing up as anything but a ‘blip’ on someone’s radar somewhere. (And if you don’t fly within “mode C” airspace–a 60-mile diameter region around the larger airports, you don’t even need a transponder, meaning you don’t even show up as a blip.)

What this means is that there are a lot of airplanes out there that theoretically never have to talk to air traffic control, and who can get into an accident without an ATC en-route controller being able to do anything about it.

Now, in order to encourage safety, pilots who don’t have to legally talk to ATC are still encouraged to do so. And many do. It’s not that ATC will necessarily talk to you–but if they know who you are, have you on their scope, and know you’re on the frequency, then if it turns out you may be headed towards someone else, they can warn you. Further, if you’re on an interception course with a passenger jet–they can ask you to change course in order to avoid a collision.

User fees may change this, by causing you to pay for every time you check in with ATC.

What this means is that, if I have to call in to talk to air traffic control even though I’m not required to talk to them–well, I may decide to take my own chances instead.

And this means when someone wanders off course and into the path of a passenger jet on a long final–well, ATC can’t tell them to get out of the way.

Even if fees only affect landings and takeoffs, this increases danger as it discourages pilots from practicing their skills.

One proposal I saw suggested a landing fee and a take-off fee of perhaps $50 or $100 per takeoff/landing. That means an afternoon doing ‘touch-and-goes’, where you practice your takeoffs and landings by landing, then immediately taking off to go around and try again–that suddenly becomes a very expensive afternoon.

And if every time you want to practice your landings you’re $500 in the hole–well, you’re probably not going to bother.

There is already a mechanism in place for funding ATC. And that is taxes on fuel. If there is not enough funding for ATC, raise fuel taxes.

It avoids the user fee conundrum. It avoids problems with charging for takeoffs and landings. It doesn’t discourage people from checking in with ATC so they can be warned if they’re about to have an accident.


More fundamentally than the specific stuff above, however, is this:

Privatization does not create efficiency.

Free markets do not create efficiency and streamlined practices because it isn’t under government control.

Free markets create efficiency through competition. And they create efficiency through competition only if new entrants to the market with new ideas can test their ideas to see if they can make a widget cheaper, or make a widget more popular, or make a widget better for people.

Eliminate new entrants to the market, and you do not get the radical experimentation markets require to become more efficient. Reduce competition which forces innovation, and markets have a tendency to stagnate.

Privatizing ATC doesn’t change the problems with ATC.

Because ATC only works by providing a singular and uniform service nationwide, we can’t have multiple ATC services competing against each other. New entrants cannot test their ideas for more efficient air traffic control services. None of the features of a free market which encourages better services is present when you privatize a service like ATC.

It just becomes an opportunity for graft and corruption.

And even if it doesn’t–and most people working within the FAA and at ATC are aviation enthusiasts; you almost have to be to become a traffic controller–privatizing ATC won’t substantially change the playing field.

The only advantages that may come from privatization is freeing ATC from some of the government regulations that surround hiring and employee retention. But that (and the financial aspects) could be fixed without privatization.

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