What United Airlines Really Wants Is to Privatize America's Skies

Privatization would jeopardize the busiest and safest air traffic control system in the world.
04/13/2017 05:30 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, appears to be conflicted about the passenger who was violently dragged off of one of his flights over the weekend.

On Monday, he defended his staff and blamed the passenger, whose face was bloodied by aviation security personnel, for being “disruptive and belligerent.” On Tuesday, he apologized: “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

But as recent as February, before the viral glare of the global spotlight, Munoz was certain that less regulation, i.e., more power and control for major airlines like United, is what’s best for airline passengers. In a meeting with Donald Trump and other airline executives, Munoz appeared passionate about working with the businessman in chief: “We look forward to working together with the president on…modernizing our aviation infrastructure and cutting the red tape that gets in the way of our industry’s ability to deliver the best experience for our employees and customers.”

Sunday’s fiasco lays bare the consequences of “cutting the red tape” and allowing corporations too much power and control. In fact, United is leading an effort to cut the red tape, i.e., privatize, the country’s air traffic control system to capture even more control. The truth is the federal government has been trying to modernize air traffic control through an ambitious program called NextGen. Yet anti-tax politicians in Congress have slowed it down by denying stable funding. So when Munoz and leaders of other major airlines like Southwest say “modernize,” what they’re really doing is making a grab for an air traffic control system the public has spent an estimated $53.5 billion on in just the last 20 years. Privatization would hand that system over to a group of stakeholders—you guessed it, dominated by the major airlines—giving them more say over airfares and what information must be disclosed to the public.

The major airlines see Trump as their best shot yet at privatizing our skies, and they might be right. Trump included air traffic control privatization in his March skinny budget and his administration is packed with privatizers. His top economic advisor, former Goldman Sachs investment banker Gary Cohn, told a room full of executives last Tuesday that privatizing air traffic control “is probably the single most exciting thing we can do.”

But United just showed the world what happens when corporations are in charge. Privatization would jeopardize the busiest and safest air traffic control system in the world by handing it to major airlines like United, who, if what happened on Sunday is any indication, values profits over passenger safety and human dignity. With even more control than they already have, the airline industry could churn out more profits off the backs of passengers and cut off access for rural communities because serving them is less profitable than serving major hubs.

After Sunday, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting corporations like United to control our skies. They belong to us—Trump, Munoz, and the rest of the privatizers should keep their hands off.

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