Between September 2015 and September 2016, approximately 716 million enplanements occurred in the United States alone. Despite this statistic meaning that, on average, every American citizen took one round-trip flight last year, the last fatal commercial airline crash in the United States occurred in 2009. In fact, looking at all commercial airline flights that occurred in 2015, commercial airliners crashed at a rate of one for every 3.1 million flights. This safety record is undoubtedly the product of a plethora of stakeholders executing with precision. Industry has consistently worked in collaboration with government to decrease the likelihood of a fatal event, and professional pilots have been there to identify and ameliorate issues when technology fails. That said, arguably the most important factor in establishing and maintaining this nearly unblemished record of safety in the American skies is the coordinated network of air traffic controllers (ATC) that quarterback each commercial flight that originates or terminates in the United States.
For better or worse, the United States’ ATC is housed within the operations arm of the Federal Aviation Administration. Because ATC is a government-provided service, Congress has funded ATC through the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which as of 2016 had a cash balance exceeding $14 billion. Many observers have commented that the biggest risk to the United States’ ATC and realizing the energy and efficiency improvements of NextGen is inconsistent funding. Given that the recent political turmoil in Washington brought us (among other things) the 2013 budget sequestration, these fears feel more real than ever. In any event, the high cost associated with ATC, coupled with the ongoing Congressional battles over the budget, has led to much discussion about privatization. Although it may seem “foreign” to the average American traveler, a private ATC system is the prevailing method of controlling the airspace across the globe. For example, several sophisticated countries have moved away from government-controlled ATC, including the United Kingdom (a private, for-profit corporation); Germany (a government corporation); and Canada (a not-for-profit entity under the care of the government). One of these methods of maintaining ATC may soon be present in the United States, too.
ATC funding is further complicated by the advent of consumer and commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in America’s skies that, when fully integrated into the National Airspace System, also demand the time and resources of the ATC system. Current practice requires users to pay for ATC services: aviation fuel taxes correspond to aircraft operators, passenger fees correspond to commercial travelers, and cargo taxes correspond to freight. But there is no comparable mechanism in place for UAS, thus placing additional strain on an already under-resourced ATC system.
These considerations have led some notable policy makers to again raise the issue of privatizing ATC. Perhaps the most important proponent of a private ATC could be President Trump. During the campaign, news broke that then-Republican nominee Trump “likes the idea of spinning off air traffic control operations from the government and placing them under the control of a private, non-profit corporation chartered by Congress.” Trump’s proclaimed history as a real estate mogul, along with the generally accepted view that Republicans prefer a smaller government, has led many pundits to speculate that the Trump Administration could be the catalyst for privatization of ATC. Whether this will happen is yet to be known, but stakeholders are wise to keep a watchful eye on who controls the control tower. To be sure, there is no reason to fear that America’s skies will become less safe with private ATC. But the transition period could be rocky, and global travel may feel these effects.