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Editorial: Privatization is not the way to improve air traffic control system

There are problems within the nation’s air traffic control system. Pilots, airlines and members of both political parties acknowledge it.

But that doesn’t mean a critical agency, responsible for safely guiding airplanes in the United States, should be farmed out to a private company, even a nonprofit one. This is a bad idea.

The concept is simple: Public safety is a public concern. An analogy – if imperfect – is useful: America is not going to privatize the FBI and cities are not going to privatize their police departments. Their purpose is fundamental to the safety of Americans, just as airport security is, via the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

Air traffic control has no powers of arrest, of course, but its role in public safety is fundamental, especially in an age of terrorism. Any business – whether it is for profit or not – will be tempted to cut corners when times are tight. But tight or not, air traffic control has to remain constant and sufficient.
Without that, confidence in air travel will suffer, with inevitable and predictable consequences to the airline industry and to the economy in general. Privatizing the system, as President Trump proposes, offers no benefits beyond some small decrease in the federal budget.

It’s undeniably true that Americans have an interest in restraining the unwarranted growth of government and there are certainly places – in the military and in health care, for example – where inefficiencies can be wrung out of the system.

It’s also true that there are areas in which government simply does not belong, including industries where profit (not public safety) is the goal and where competition helps to keep prices down and quality high. But there will be no competition in a privatized system of air traffic control.

Private industry, properly regulated, does many things better than any government could, especially a government as large and difficult to direct as the one in Washington.

But there is grave reason to doubt that would be the case with air traffic control. Whatever the problems are with the system, they should be fixed rather than discarding the entire enterprise at a time when air travel is the safest it has ever been.

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