The case against privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system

On every domestic flight, passengers have a window-seat view of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) work to modernize our aviation infrastructure through a set of technologies and procedures called NextGen.

After a rocky start, the FAA is now delivering on the promise to improve our nation’s air traffic control system. Congress hasn’t made the FAA’s job easy, cutting its budget in 2013 and then shutting down the entire federal government later that year, but the FAA is making progress.

Since 2007, NextGen has delivered $2.7 billion in benefits to airlines and other users, and the FAA estimates that NextGen benefits will grow exponentially in the years to come. By 2030, NextGen will deliver an estimated $161 billion in benefits — resulting in lower airfares, enhanced safety and increased capacity.

However, these efforts are in jeopardy. Next week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing to revive a risky proposal to privatize our nation’s air traffic control system and give effective control of our public airspace to the major airlines and their allies. 

Last year, this legislation died in Congress due to strong, bipartisan opposition in both chambers and an outcry from numerous aviation and consumer stakeholder groups.

Opponents have raised serious concerns about whether privatization would guarantee safety, protect national security, expedite new technology and keep our aviation system solvent. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports that validate these concerns.

Last year, the GAO found that a privatized air traffic control system would be too big to fail, meaning consumers or taxpayers might have to bail out the private corporation if it couldn’t pay the $10 billion-plus that it costs to operate a safe system. 

Another report questioned whether a privatized system could protect national security. Privatization proposals would sever ties between the Department of Defense (DOD) and the FAA, and the DOD has raised “serious concerns” about severing these ties “in the execution of the national defense mission.”

Another GAO report could not guarantee that a private corporation would speed up the FAA’s work to modernize the air traffic control system through NextGen. 

The truth is that privatization would slow NextGen down. According to study by the Mitre Corp., a proper transition could take seven years.

But that doesn’t stop proponents from claiming that the private corporation, whose board will be effectively controlled by the airlines, will speed things up.

U.S. airlines have suffered repeated computer network failures that have delayed or canceled tens of thousands of flights, stranding millions of passengers at airports across the country. If U.S. airlines failed to invest in their own aging computer systems, what guarantees do passengers have that their fees will be invested in the air traffic control system?

This private, airline-dominated…

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