The effort to remove government from management of the nation’s air traffic control system will not go away. While there is an urgent need to upgrade the system and bring it into the modern age, government is better equipped to keep air travel safe.
With a new executive in the White House who has his own strong opinions about privatization, industry officials pushing the idea see an opening.
Just a few years ago, the notion of privatization seemed worth exploring in the face of fiscal stress and draconian cuts at the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages air traffic control. The situation has changed in the intervening years and opponents of such a move make a convincing case.
The FAA is by no means perfect. In many cases, the agency has been woefully slow to make necessary changes. It dragged its feet on instituting the new pilot rules fought for so hard by Families of Flight 3407 following the crash in Clarence Center.
Still, allowing major airlines and their trade associations to win the fight to privatize would be wrong for several reasons, with passenger safety at the top of the list.
Notwithstanding the crash of Flight 3407, air travel in the United States is very safe. Such a radical step as privatizing air traffic control would threaten the proven ability to keep travel safe.
The White House is not saying much about the president’s meeting last week with industry officials pushing privatization. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has also remained noncommittal.
Congressional Democrats and a few Republicans, including Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, in addition to groups representing the general aviation industry, oppose privatization. According to a McClatchy News Service story published in The Buffalo News, they say privatization could hurt small airports and companies that make business and personal aircraft if small aircraft have to pay more to use the airspace.
Modernization of the air traffic control system involves a rollout of what is called NextGen, a satellite-based control system that would replace ground-based radar technology. Privatization supporters believe that they could do it faster and more efficiently.
That argument recognizes typical governmental sluggishness. But better funding of the FAA will move the conversion to NextGen along.
Moran’s characterization of the privatization plan as “a step further than necessary” is spot on.
Government at various levels is in great need of more efficiency, but turning the reins of air traffic control over to an industry that would police itself is not the answer.