MAGA: Making ATC Great Again?

By Marion Delano

The release of Donald Trump’s first budget proposal has garnered a lot of attention and examination. The proposed budget takes an ax to many federal program and agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department, USAID and the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Transportation is another agency that will see it’s budget cut under Trump’s proposed plan. The department would see a 13% decrease in funding from it’s current level this fiscal year.

While the 13% budget cut for the Department of Transportation is jarring, it is not he most controversial part of the Trump plan. No, that right is saved for proposed privatization of Air Traffic Control services within the U.S. Under this plan, ATC would be removed from the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration and spun-off to a new quasi-governmental private corporation similar to Fannie Mae or Amtrak.

The privation of the Air Traffic Control system is not a new idea. In fact, just last year congressional republicans pushed to privatize the system, but ultimately failed. Perhaps this time will be different as the plan does have the support of the Airline industry as well as the ATC controller’s union. These groups argue privatization will remove ATC from the hassles of government funding and the constant spending disputes which has paralyzed the agency in recent years.

While removing Air Traffic Control from the constant funding challengers associated with governmental operations is surely a plus, that one aspect does not make up for the disastrous ramifications privation will have.  The fact of the matter is that ATC in the U.S. is already pretty great. The U.S aviation system is universally seen as one of, if not the safest in the world. It is also the most accessible and economical aviation system in the world.  Privatization would radically change the purpose and mission of Air Traffic Control. Instead of being a government agency accountable to the people, it would be a private organization controlled by it’s stakeholders.

So if the system isn’t broke, then why is there a push to fix it? To obtain that answer you just need to follow the money. The U.S. airline industry has been pushing privatization for years with their lobbying group, Airlines for America, leading the way. They support privatization because it would give them more control over the air system while also reducing their costs. Currently, ATC is funded through the FAA’s fuel taxes and fees. Privatization would mean that all funding for ATC would come directly from user-fees charged for air traffic services. This represents a massive shifting of costs, as general aviation would end up bearing a significantly higher burden than currently experienced.

Furthermore, removing ATC from the FAA control means less oversight and regulation of Air Traffic Services within the U.S. Instead of being answerable to U.S. citizens, the new organization would likely be more beholden to industry stakeholders, with the airlines gaining unprecedented influence. Even worse is that fact that there is no financial incentive for this plan. It would cost U.S. taxpayers 89 billion dollars and ad over 19.8 billion dollars to the deficit.

Why then is there a push for ATC privatization? The answer, of course, is to follow the money. The U.S. airline industry, led by its lobbying group Airlines for America, has been pushing for privatization for year. The airline industry is the only group that gains from privatization. Their costs would go down as user fees would shift a significant burden to general aviation users. Additionally, the airlines would be represented in the privatized corporations 13 member board, meaning they would be in the captains seat so to speak. They would literally be controlling ATC.

Supporters of privatization point to the U.K. and Canada as examples of where ATC privatization has worked. This is misleading though, as the U.S. Air Traffic System is nearly 10 times larger the Canadian or U.K systems (in terms of aircraft movements). Even then, when equalized for movements, the U.S. system is more cost-effective. Finally, the privatization of ATC in those countries has significantly impacted general aviation in those countries. Privatization has made flying more expensive for small aircraft while also reducing access to airports and airspace.

The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and that mantra certainly applies here. Privatization is not about efficiency or cost. It is a thinly veiled power grab by the airlines. The U.S. air traffic system is clearly not perfect. The roll-out of the NextGen system has admittedly been a mess, but privatization does not address this issue. Less accountability and control is not the answer. User-fees do not save taxpayers money, they simply leave general aviation users further in the lurch. ATC privatization is a pointless endeavor. Let’s tell Trump that ATC is already great and that he should keep his tiny hands off of it.

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