Skift Take

A private air traffic control system isn't dangerous or untested; many countries around the world use them. Until more details are known about what it will take to implement and operate this new system in the U.S., however, you should remain skeptical about the transformative prospects of such a change.

In an event concocted to resemble a bill signing ceremony, President Donald Trump unveiled a list of principles on Monday intended to guide the government’s move towards transitioning from the current public air traffic control system to a new private system based on the model of countries such as Canada and Germany.

The plan, however, doesn’t include specifics or concrete details on what such a transition will look like on a functional level.

A look at the site created by the Trump Administration to explain the changes, dubbed SmarterSkies, lacks crucial details. A series of fact sheets and FAQs are aimed at offering broad questions about the changes, but don’t include the intended timing of such changes and what the process of rolling the current air traffic control system into a new version would look like.

The site touts support from aviation heavyweights like International Air Transport Association CEO Alexandre de Juniac and National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi.

Basically, air traffic control will be spun off from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will still have oversight over air traffic operations but be more focused on safety than aviation operations. The 16,000 current air traffic controllers will be transitioned over to the new non-profit system, which uses satellites to guide planes instead of radar.

“The current system can’t keep up,” said President Trump during the event. “It causes flight delays and crippling inefficiencies, costing our economy as much as $25 billion a year in economic output. We live in a modern age, yet our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past.”

The measure would have to pass Congress in some form, which is anything but a sure thing given the state of politics in the U.S. right now. The FAA’s current authorization ends Sept. 30, so legislation would have to go into effect by then.

While they aren’t big on details, the documents do, however, lay out the rationale for the changes.

“To remain the world leader in aviation, the U.S. must operate the safest, most efficient air traffic system,” states the site. “To do this, our nation requires predictable and sustainable funding to modernize air traffic control to match growing demand and advances in technology. Smarter decision making and reliable funding — that is not tethered to complex and unpredictable federal procurement and appropriations processes — will modernize our air traffic control system faster and more cost-effectively. Consumers, the economy, and all airspace users stand to benefit from a system that delivers more flight choices, fewer delays and lower operating costs.”

The site also claims that the changes will drive down costs for consumers. Right now, air traffic control is paid for by taxes charged to flyers on each ticket sold.

“A new air traffic entity will have no direct impact on the price of air travel,” reads the FAQ section of the site. “Ticket prices are driven by demand and competition. We also know that demand for air travel services will continue to rise. The ATC proposal includes a governing board representing all aviation stakeholders. The new entity will charge system users, not passengers. This approach eliminates most ticket taxes. In Canada, where they use a similar model, air traffic user charges are 30 percent lower than the government taxes they replaced 20 years ago.”

Airlines could pass on the costs to consumers, in all likelihood, if they so choose. U.S. airlines operate on razor-thin margins, so increased costs would likely have a serious impact on their bottom line.

The airlines would essentially control the air traffic control system under this model, with representatives acting as the bulk of the organization’s board of directors.

Analysts say that the new model could end up increasing the U.S. deficit, as well, if payments to the new air traffic control systems don’t match the costs of running the system.

The FAA has been working to implement its NextGen system of improvements to the U.S. aviation system, but innovation has been slow and costly. During his speech, President Trump seemed to confuse elements of NextGen — which was originally announced in 2003 — and the air traffic control reforms he proposes.

Privatizing U.S. air traffic control has been a longtime goal of Congressional Republicans, dating back to the 1980s. As recently as last year, a bill failed to progress in the House that would bring similar changes to the U.S. aviation landscape.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined what separating air traffic control from the FAA could mean in a late 2016 report, finding that management, funding, and the transition period are all areas that other private air traffic systems have struggled with. It also found that many in the aviation community say the change is unnecessary and would distract from other more pressing improvements to the commercial aviation system.

“Aviation stakeholders stated that it is important to identify what problem or problems separating ATC services out of FAA is intended to solve before proceeding with such a restructuring as a solution,” states the report. “The majority of stakeholders we spoke with agreed that separating ATC operations from FAA was an option to consider. However, some of these aviation stakeholders believed a change in the ATC system is not necessary and were concerned that such a transition would take resources and focus away from current endeavors such as capital improvement projects in FAA’s air traffic control modernization initiative (also known as NextGen).”

The report also suggests that the transition to a private system would be extremely complex, costly, and take years to implement effectively, possibly exceeding three to five years to conclude.

The announcement represents the first salvo of President Trump’s infrastructure improvement policy, which is expected to include a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure buttressed by public-private partnerships intended to further revitalize roads, ports, and airports around the country.


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Tags: air traffic control, infrastructure, trump

Photo credit: President Trump has announced his intentions to privatize U.S. air traffic control. An airplane flies between the air traffic control tower and the Washington Monument at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport in this 2015 photo. 156713 / 156713

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