There has been a lot of speculation in the drone community about what might happen to the FAA, and specifically to drone regulation, under the Trump Administration.
Well, it looks like we now have some clarity.
In the budget just released by the Trump administration, air traffic control (ATC) would be separated from the FAA, and be placed under the supervision of an independent, nongovernmental organization. In a budget request to Congress released Thursday, the Trump administration stated that this proposed “nonprofit corporation” would be “more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”
Many aviation groups have spoken out agains the idea. Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, said back in 2015 that, “Privatizing the air traffic control system is a risky and unnecessary step.”
On the other side of the debate, one of the leading proponents for removing ATC operations from the FAA’s control is Representative Bill Shuster, who introduced a proposal calling for this back in 2015 (which is what led to Mike Perrone’s statement quoted above). Shuster plans to reintroduce his proposal this year.
Under Shuster’s plan, a board made up of airline and other aviation stakeholders would oversee a new ATC corporation. This new organization would be funded by fees paid by aircraft operators. (Currently, these operations are funded by taxes on fuel and airline tickets.)
In this new model, the FAA would continue to provide safety oversight, but ATC operations would be independent of the FAA.
Pros and Cons
One big pro that Shuster and other proponents of removing ATC from the FAA point to is that this separation would protect the air traffic corporation from the federal budget process, a process which has led to complaints about repeated delays and regular uncertainty for the airline industry.
Shuster has said that passengers under this new system would “see a more efficient system, flight times decrease, on-time departures increase, emissions reduced, and 21st century technology deployed to guide our planes from gate to gate.”
Notably, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents the FAA’s 14,000 controllers, backs privatization, citing complaints that the FAA has been unable to resolve chronic controller understaffing and has been slow to modernize facilities.
Many airlines also support privatization as a quick path to modernizing equipment, and removing uncertainty from their operations.
On the other hand, many aviation groups have previously raised concerns about these proposed changes.
Most concerns in Congress relate to removing congressional oversight, and adding new fees for air traffic control, which might ultimately be passed down to passengers.
In the drone industry, a possible negative, and potentially unforeseen, consequence of privatizing air traffic control could be a ramping down of partnerships toward creating new Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems to control all aircraft—both drones and airplanes—in a given airspace.
Without the centralizing authority of a governmental agency, the current collaborations between public and private interests to create UTMs to keep airports safe may be derailed, or simply defunded and deprioritized.
However, this new proposed ATC corporation, if it is created, could well pursue these partnerships with private industry. Much is unknown right now about, and it’s still difficult to predict how things might shape up.
What Is Air Traffic Control, and Why Does It Matter to Drone Pilots?
Air traffic control is a service provided by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and through controlled airspace, and can provide advisory services to aircraft in non-controlled airspace. – Wikipedia
One reason drone pilots should care about air traffic control has to do with safety. Rogue drones can potentially take down a plane by flying into its engine, either accidentally or on purpose, and the FAA has been working with the FBI and private partners to find ways to control rogue drones in airports and controlled airspaces.
The reason this matters is in part about how the drone industry is perceived by the public at large. Of course, we all want drones to be seen in a positive light, and so it’s important that ATC operations be able to control rogue drones and prevent potentially dangerous scenarios involving drones.
A related topic, which is discussed above, is the creation of Unmanned Traffic Management systems, which would help oversee the flight of both planes and drones, and serve to semi- or fully automate ATC operations. This kind of system seems like a good option when considering the proliferation of drones, and the very likely possibility that we will see more and more drones in the air in the next several decades.
To continue to make drone flights possible, we have to consider the best, safest ways to share the skies. Working alongside ATC operations and personnel—be it under the supervision of the FAA or under its own, private supervision—is going to be crucial to this effort as we move forward in the industry.