President Seeks to Privatize Air Traffic System

Will the nation’s air traffic control system be run by a non-profit entity outside of the federal government? The interest groups are lining up for what promises to be a hard fight in Congress.

President Trump is proposing to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system. He introduced the privatization effort with a number of comments and arguments in favor of the effort.

For too many years, our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac, and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs us billions and billions of dollars in lost hours and lost dollars themselves. Today, we are proposing to take American air travel into the future — finally.

At a time when every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air traffic control system still runs on radar and ground-based radio systems that they don’t even make anymore, they can’t even fix anymore, and many controllers must use slips of paper to track our thousands and thousands of planes that are up in the air….

The current system cannot keep up — hasn’t been able to keep up for many years. It causes flight delays and crippling inefficiencies, costing our economy as much as $25 billion a year in economic output. We live in a modern age, yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past.

The FAA has been trying to upgrade our nation’s air traffic control system for a long period of years. But after billions and billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays, we are still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.

The President also lauded the work of air traffic controllers:

Our incredible air traffic controllers keep us safe every day even though they are forced to use this badly outdated system. That is why we want to give them access to capital markets and investors so they can obtain the best, newest, and safest technology available.

Citing Success of Privatizing Air Traffic Control in Other Countries

In addition to lauding the new technology available, and noting that the current system used by the Federal Aviation Administration is still outdated despite spending billions of dollars, President Trump made this comment about how other countries have updated their systems with a proposal similar to what he is proposing:

Canada, as an example, modernized their air traffic control through a non-government organization about 20 years ago, and they have cut costs significantly, adopted cutting-edge technology, and handled 50 percent more traffic — and actually, far more than that on a relative basis compared to us.

The proposal is to create a non-profit organization that is financed by the corporation. The FAA would focus firmly on safety in air travel. The new separate non-profit corporation would be charged with ensuring route efficiency, timely service, and reducing flight delays.

Union Reaction

There is more than one union representing employees at the FAA. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is one of seven organizations representing FAA’s rank-and-file employees and managers. AFGE and several other employee organizations do not agree with the proposal to privatize the air traffic control system. In a letter to a Congressional committee, the seven organizations wrote a joint letter outlining their opposition:

…[O]verhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic control from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth. Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.

The union also contends that taking air traffic control out of government control would increase costs and “jeopardize the FAA’s almost-completed work to develop the nation’s Next Generation Air Transportation System…”

Position of Air Traffic Controllers Union

Notably missing from the employee organizations that are against the effort to privatize the air traffic control system is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). The air traffic controllers union represents about  20,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, traffic management coordinators and specialists, flight service station air traffic controllers, engineers and architects, and safety professionals, as well as Department of Defense (DOD) and Federal Contract Tower (FCT) air traffic controllers. The 20,000 figure was cited by NATCA in its Congressional testimony in May 2017.

NATCA contends that the current system is unacceptable.  The union says that change is necessary to ensure a stable, predictable funding stream for the national air system. It also opposes any model for changing the system that would “derive profit from operating the air traffic control system.”

NATCA believes the current system of government control is inefficient.

September will be here before you know it. We will be looking at another possible government shutdown and, as I said in my opening statement, as we lead up to a shutdown, the FAA turns their attention from NextGen, from UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) implementation, to shutdown procedures. For the last 10 years it happens a couple of times a year, and we lose this time. It’s four of five weeks leading up to it, five weeks on the back end of it, and they’re not sure what sequester’s going to bring us if we do get a budget and we do get a bill passed, what types of cuts we will have into the aviation system.”

That is not necessarily an endorsement of the general plan proposed by President Trump, but it is also not the outright opposition that has been expressed by the other unions.

Air Traffic Controllers Strike

Unstated in recent public statements for or against privatization is the strike by the air traffic controllers in 1981 and whether the culture and attitude that led to the 1981 strike would ever be repeated when working for a non-profit organization outside the federal government.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was the union representing the controllers at that time. It had endorsed Ronald Reagan in his quest to become president of the United States. The union’s effort for higher pay and better benefits and working conditions started on August 3, 1981. About 12,000 of the 17,000 air traffic controllers walked off their jobs. Federal employees, including air traffic controllers, are not allowed to go on strike.

As a result of the union’s efforts, there were nationwide flight cancellations and delays. 22 of the nation’s busiest airports were directed to reduce their scheduled flights by 50 percent. When a federal judge found the union in contempt for failing to obey President Reagan’s back to work order, the union refused to alter its position. As a result, the Secretary of Transportation announced the striking air traffic controllers were fired and would not be rehired. The union was decertified as the bargaining agent. It faced millions of dollars in fines and filed for bankruptcy.

NATCA was certified as the successor to PATCO as the bargaining agent for air traffic controllers and others in the FAA in 1987. NATCA has indicated it would not condone an illegal strike. It does pressure Congress and the FAA to hire more controllers and to accelerate the installation of advanced air traffic control systems. NATCA has also been aggressive in negotiations with the FAA but has not been involved in striking against the federal government.

It’s Up to Congress to Decide

It would be up to Congress to decide the structure of the bargaining unit. It would not necessarily be the case that all of the federal employees currently represented by the union would move to a new private sector entity.

It is also possible that Congress could structure a new private sector entity that would not be allowed to strike in order to prevent shutting down the nation’s air traffic as leverage. No doubt, Congress will at least consider its options if the President’s proposal does move forward in Congress.

It is difficult to predict how the changes proposed by President Trump will be received in Congress. As is often the case, the most significant disputes may revolve around the details in constructing a new system for an entity that would potentially have a significant positive or negative impact on America’s economy.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47