The Airlines Are Terrible At Running Their Businesses, So Let's Turn Air Traffic Control Over To Them

What could go wrong?
02/16/2017 03:40 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017

What could go wrong?

Imagine that you run a troubled business and a group of people come to you and say they can help. You would want to look into their backgrounds first, right? When you did, you found that they have decades of losses in their own business. They’ve filed for bankruptcy more times than anyone in history. And they have a customer satisfaction rating on TripAdvisor that’s lower than Henry VIII’s executioner.

You might then stop returning their calls.

But not if they are the nation’s airlines who are pushing for a naked power grab in their attempt to run Air Traffic Control.

And they appear to have a sympathetic ear in President Trump.

Some Republicans, lead by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), would like to set up a non-profit, private company to run ATC. Why? They say it’s because Congress is unable to fund the system properly and innovation and efficiency are lacking. Basically, the argument from Congress comes down to “we can’t get the job done, so magically maybe someone else can.”

The airlines, of course, like the idea because they would largely be in charge. (Note— Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest airline, opposes privatization). The airlines will probably have an outsized number of seats on this new entity’s board and they can then do what they have long dreamed of: raise the tax on using the system and limit non-airline traffic (known as general aviation).

Here’s why the whole scheme is a terrible idea.

The ATC system is not (very) broken. It manages the safest aviation system in the world, delivers hundreds of millions of passengers yearly, and has made steady, albeit slow, progress on adopting new technology.

The cost of flying is surely going to go up for everyone. How will this system be funded? The private entity, now outside of the U.S. Treasury, will have to be self-sufficient. And that means user fees for everyone. User fees are a tax. Except it won’t be Congress implementing them, it will be a private organization.

It potentially devastates general aviation. These are thousands of small businesses, employing roughly a million people, which may find it impossible to operate in a higher-cost environment. In nation’s that have user fees for general aviation, general aviation suffers to the point of near non-existence.

And it will be the largest transfer of public property to a private entity in history.

Supporters of privatization point to Canada, which set up the private NavCanada twenty years ago. Funny that the same people who deride Canada for its universal health care system like its aviation system.

But in Canada, both work because the country is a whole lot smaller. (Not landmass— it’s a really big place. But in population)

Roughly 80 million passengers fly in Canada each year. In the U.S., that number is 700 million. NavCanada serves about 570 airports. In the U.S., FAA oversees some 5,000. And the FAA. employs 15,000 air traffic controllers. Canada... just 1900.

President Trump met with airline executives last week. He needs to hear the rest of the story from the whole industry.

We have the largest, most complex, aviation system in the world. There are ways of improving it without turning the keys over to an industry that has a track record of running everything into the ground.

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