The future of aviation demands privatized air-traffic control


American air-traffic control is safe, but as currently constituted, the system won’t be able to keep up with the increasing demand for domestic and international air travel. To ensure Federal Aviation Administration can continue to modernize and operate efficiently, free of budget uncertainty and political interference, air-traffic control should be turned over to an independent nonprofit corporation, as proposed by H.R. 2997, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act.

From 1996 to 2012, the FAA’s budget doubled, even though staff levels stayed roughly constant and the agency’s productivity actually fell. A 2016 inspector-general’s report found that, of the system’s 15 most recent major system acquisitions, eight had gone over-budget by a total of $3.8 billion and eight were behind schedule by an average of more than four years. These sorts of problems illustrate the difficulties the FAA faces in adapting to new market conditions due to higher and more complex demand.

The 21st Century AIRR Act—sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which cleared the bill June 27 in a 32-25 vote—would assign oversight of America’s air-traffic control system to a new nonprofit corporation, with a CEO who is answerable to a board of directors made up of “a diverse cross-section of the aviation system’s stakeholders and users.” The act would refocus the FAA on federal safety oversight and streamline the FAA certification process, making it easier for companies to get their products out on time. This would encourage innovation in aviation technology by lowering the cost of implementation.

The proposal has support from President Donald Trump, who included a version of it in his proposed FY 2018 budget. As the National Taxpayers Union Foundation detailed in a recent piece, “the budget forecasts that taxes would be reduced by $115 billion from FY 2021 to FY 2027. The FAA’s budget for ATC would be reduced by $70 billion, leaving the agency to focus on regulating aviation safety.”


But the measure also faces pushback from a variety of aviation interests. They prefer the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill from Sen. Jon Thune, R-S.D., which does not include air-traffic control privatization. The Schuster proposal should be considered commonsense legislation, not only cutting government waste but making the world a little bit safer. Let’s hope it moves on the House floor soon.

Image by Stoyan Yotov


  • Art Friedman

    The author fails to raise some pertinent points.

    First, the author of this boondoggle (H.R. 2997), House Transportation Chair Rep. Bill Shuster is literally sleeping with the lobbyist, Shelley Rubino, for the group that proposes this giveaway of billions in public assets to a private coporation. (Feel free to fact-check that.) They have been seen on numerous occasions at luxury lodging on the lobbying group’s dime. (He claims she isn’t “lobbying” him, so maybe there is another word for it.) His motivation for the proposal therefore starts out pretty tainted.

    Second, although the FAA got a slow start on the NextGen modernization plan, a turning point in the NextGen program came in 2010, with the establishment of the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC). This is the industry-wide, aviation stakeholder group that for the last seven years has been driving where and when the NextGen technologies are deployed. By utilization of the NAC, through 2016, the FAA and industry have a combined 96.2 percent (102 of 106) success rate on meeting and delivering expected outcomes for each commitment. In fact, the only groups that really appear likely to fall short of readiness for the Jan. 1, 2020 implementation date are the airlines (many of which back this corporatization travesty) and the military.

    Third, the groups that know the most about the actual functioning of the U.S. air-traffic-control systems are the ones that oppose this giveaway. These include the National Air Transport Association (NATA), the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), some airlines (including Delta), and groups (aviation and otherwise) representing rural America, which stands to suffer because of this proposal.

    Fourth, the author acknowledges that the U.S. air traffic system is safe. But he doesn’t admit how extremely safe it is or that it continues to get safer. Yet, he advocates a proposal that would remove many of the safeguards that make it that way.

    Finally, no one mentions the cost of all this — in addition to giving away billions of dollars of public assets to a private corporation. There will have to be fees, added on to your ticket costs, to support that corporation, which won’t be planning on operating at a loss. The airlines that support this see potential profit by getting out from beneath government oversight. This boondoggle could make your next airline trip even worse and more expensive.


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