President Donald Trump’s support last week for a proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system has left industry and political leaders divided.
Trump signed a memo and letter to Congress on Monday outlining his blueprint for overhauling the nation’s air traffic control system. Trump called for replacing airline passenger taxes with user fees that would pay a not-for-profit company to manage the nation’s air traffic control system, currently run by the Federal Aviation Administration. The plan also calls for a technological overhaul of what the president said was an “an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”
It’s not clear if Congress will take action on the president’s memo. Opponents like U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on a committee that oversees the FAA, denounced the idea, saying it would give leave too much in the hands of the airlines.
“So let’s hand over to the airlines all the people and the equipment essential to the safe operation of our nation’s air traffic control system and trust them, the airlines, to manage our skies,” Nelson said on the senate floor. “We know that several airlines in the past year have had to cancel thousands of flights and strand passengers at airports for hours because they couldn’t effectively manage their IT systems. How can we trust the airlines to govern an entity that manages our skies, when it can’t even manage its own basic IT systems?”
Many industry insiders, including the association that represents air traffic controllers, support the proposal to modernize the effort by tracking airplanes with global positioning satellites instead of radar and radio signals. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has been at the forefront of research into the so-called “NextGen” approach to air traffic control. The News-Journal spoke with experts at the school and officials at Daytona Beach International Airport to get their reaction to the president’s action.
WILL IT BE SAFE?
Jay Cassens, director of business development at DBIA, said the safety of the average flier should not be impacted by the proposed change because the FAA would still conduct inspections and set safety guidelines.
Sid McGuirk, chair of ERAU’s Applied Aviation Sciences Department, said there shouldn’t be a spike in accidents should the plan pass.
“We have one of the most complex, safest air traffic control systems on the globe. I know of no one on the face of the Earth who wants to jeopardize safety,” McGuirk said. “For the life of me, I can’t imagine that we would transition to a system that is less safe. I just don’t see doom and gloom of skies falling under this thing.”
HOW DOES IT AFFECT TRAVELERS?
While fliers might be safe, their wallets might not be. At least one airline — Delta — says privatization would result in higher costs.
“Privatizing (air traffic control) would also likely lead to a rise in the cost of airline tickets in the US,” the airline said in a 2016 report. “Consumers in Canada faced a 59 percent increase in (air traffic control) fees on airline tickets. In the United Kingdom, air traffic control fees rose 30 percent, while fees remained relatively constant in the United States with 6 percent growth. These increases prompted Canadians to cross the border in search of cheaper airline tickets.”
Cassens said that he didn’t think fliers would have to start paying exorbitant fees if the system becomes privately run, but anyone who’s ever had to pay to check a bag might be more cautious.
Under Trump’s plan, one also might see more planes in the skies, Cassens said. The FAA reports that there are 7,000 aircraft in the sky at any given time and roughly 24,000 daily commercial flights spread across 5 million square miles of airspace in the U.S.
Cassens said that larger, hub airports could benefit from implementing NextGen technology because aircraft wouldn’t have to be so widely spaced as they are now. Implementing NextGen would allow the distance between aircraft to be compressed, increasing the capacity and allowing more planes to land and take off at an increased rate, he said.
While the president criticized the delay in implementing GPS technology — which has been around for decades — McGuirk defended the industry.
“The idea that we’ve mishandled NextGen, I think most people who understand technology in the aviation industry would disagree with that concept,” said McGuirk, who worked for the FAA in air traffic control for 34 years. “It’s an evolution, not a revolution. Over time, we improve the system.”
He cautioned against doing too much too fast and likened overhauling the system while running it to “driving down the interstate and trying to change a tire.”
“I’m always concerned when people say, ‘I can do something faster, better, cheaper,’” McGuirk said. “Oftentimes they don’t grasp the complexities of what they are talking about.”
Nelson said the FAA was just three years away from implementing NextGen and handing off the process to private entity now would “disrupt and delay the FAA’s modernization efforts.”
The planned technology upgrade shouldn’t impact Daytona’s travelers, and most shouldn’t notice any change, Cassens said.
WHO ELSE IS AFFECTED?
Who the plan would most affect are those in DBIA’s general aviation community — which is the third-busiest in the state, Cassens said.
Here’s why: When a person takes a commercial flight, a number of taxes are paid into the Airway Trust Fund, which is used to pay for air traffic control and other services. Passenger transport taxes make up the bulk of the $14.7 billion fund, according to an FAA website.
Both commercial and general aviation entities use air traffic control services. And while general aviation entities pay a gas and jet fuel tax, they don’t pay passenger ticket taxes to fund the safety system they use – a split some call unfair. Under the new system, airlines would have more control over how fees are accessed and those in general aviation could wind up footing more of the bill.
“I think one of the big areas for debate over the years has been what about general aviation fees?” Cassens said. “The concern of the general aviation users is now that the airlines (will be) controlling how this gets funded and how the funding gets spent, are they going to start looking at general aviation?”
While the efficiency of privatization often comes in part from eliminating jobs, air traffic controllers should be safe, Cassens said.
“With the way air travel is going now, I don’t see them wanting to decrease the amount of controllers,” he said.
ERAU, which trains between 200 to 300 air traffic control majors a year, shouldn’t be affected much either, McGuirk said, adding that if the privatization plan moved forward, students will just work for a private entity rather the federal government.
“It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a different way of doing business,” McGuirk said.
While industry insiders wait to see what action, if any, Congress takes on the matter, McGuirk said he hopes the administration makes the transition carefully.
“I would hope it would be years,” he said. “If you don’t do it right, it’s going to be an issue.”