It’s Official: Trump Plan Calls for Privatization of Air Traffic Control
BY Zacc Dukowitz8 June 2017
President Trump recently released plans that would privatize the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system, effectively removing that responsibility from the FAA.
This news shouldn’t come as too much of a shock—the Trump budget released back in March clearly called for removing the ATC from the FAA—but it’s certainly a sign that things could be moving forward more quickly than might have been imagined.
Is This a Good Thing?
Although we’re generally against removing authority from the FAA—take, for instance, the new drone act proposed by Senator Feinstein, which we think could seriously hurt the drone industry and everything we’ve worked so hard to build—privatizing the ATC could in fact be a good thing for the industry.
Here are some positives and negatives to privatizing the ATC, as we see them.
Although the larger argument about how privatization could impact airspace regulations and air travel is fairly complicated, on the surface the potential impact on the drone industry seems like it could be positive.
As noted recently on Recode, privatizing the ATC could fast-track national drone tracking:
“If Trump follows through with privatizing air traffic control, a solution for national drone tracking might come even sooner.”
Why would it be good to get drone tracking in place sooner rather than later? Because finding a comprehensive solution for tracking drones is one of the key steps that needs to be taken before drone deliveries can ever be a reality.
But getting drone tracking in place will do more than just push deliveries forward.
Complex drone tracking systems, such as Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTMs), will enable a solution to the complicated problem of keeping airports safe from rogue drones, and provide a path forward for allowing drones to fly beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot.
BVLOS flights are one of the key factors needed for pushing the commercial drone market forward, and that’s why the FAA’s Pathfinder Program has been studying them for some time now.
Just think of all the applications where BVLOS could be used: inspections, agriculture, not to mention search & rescue and police-related applications . . . basically any scenario where flying a long distance would be useful (and there are a lot of them).
So if privatization fast-tracks drone tracking, and gets us to a comprehensive system sooner, that would certainly be a good thing.
Now let’s consider the larger argument.
For the last few years one of the leading proponents for removing ATC operations from the FAA’s control has been Representative Bill Shuster, who introduced a proposal calling for the privatization of the ATC all the way back in 2015.
One pro for the airline industry 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.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about this topic, and the title alone reveals where they stand in the debate: “You’ve Just Been Cleared for a Fast Landing.”
When it comes to the drone industry, a big concern on the Con side of this argument would be that current private-government partnerships might dissolve into a cash grab.
The LAANC Program, which spearheaded the recent effort to create and release the first round of FAA airspace authorization maps, represents a hugely positive collaboration between private and government interests for the general betterment of the drone industry.
The ultimate goal of the LAANC is to:
“…allow an operator to plan a flight, submit that flight plan to the FAA, and receive automatic approval if the flight plan remains within the preselected airspace volumes.”
Matt Fanelli, Senior Manager for Strategy at Skyward
This would be an incredible step forward for commercial drone pilots, and certainly difficult, if not nearly impossible, without the collaboration of private companies and the government.
But if the ATC is privatized, we could see companies like Skyward and AirMaps, along with all the others currently partnered in the LAANC, breaking their current partnerships, not to mention all of the private companies partnering with NASA to help build UTMs for drones.
Regarding the big picture and the implications of privatization for aviation in general, many aviation groups have raised concerns about privatizing the ATC.
“[It’s the] creation of an airline controlled corporate monopoly. There would be little to no passenger representation in the new corporation when passengers will be the ones funding ATC through additional fees.”
Most concerns in Congress relate to removing congressional oversight and adding new fees for air traffic control, which would in all likelihood be passed down to passengers (a concern raised by Flyers’ Rights in the quote above).
The worst case scenario would be that we’d end up with a privatized ATC system driven by profits where things are still inefficient and slow, but also more costly and less safe.
The debate here is a classic one, and boils down to whether private organizations can actually move more nimbly than government entities when it comes to managing huge, complex systems, and still retain high standards for quality and safety.
“The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age.”
– Elaine Chao, Department of Transportation Secretary
Indeed. But who should be the ones to address the challenge?