Air traffic controllers Bridget Monroe (left), John Holcepl (center) and Chris Taylor watch the skies from the FAA control tower at Paine Field in September, 2014. (Mark Mulligan / Herald file photo)

Air traffic controllers Bridget Monroe (left), John Holcepl (center) and Chris Taylor watch the skies from the FAA control tower at Paine Field in September, 2014. (Mark Mulligan / Herald file photo)

Comment: Selling off air traffic control won’t make skies safer

By Bill Center

Most American homeowners have a mortgage and other consumer debt. Many also have a backlog of overdue maintenance — painting, roof repair and the like.

The same is true for the federal government. Our current national debt is rapidly approaching $20 trillion. Our nation also has a maintenance backlog of bridges and highways, for example, long overdue for repair. The estimated backlog adds another $6 trillion to $8 trillion.

America’s outdated air traffic control system is part of that backlog.

Congress knows safe air travel is a priority for us all, yet they’re wary of raising taxes or diverting funds from other priority programs to fund needed modernization.

Many leaders in the commercial aviation sector — frustrated with congressional neglect of needed upgrades — support a proposal to take air traffic control authority, equipment and personnel away from the Federal Aviation Administration and “give” it to a not-yet-created nonprofit organization. President Trump on Monday endorsed the plan to move more than 30,000 federal workers in the air traffic control system into such a corporation.

Congress would be happy to have the expense off their “to do” list.

Don’t be fooled by the word “nonprofit” in the proposal. The flying public would foot the bill as the airline industry and other users passed costs along to fare-paying passengers. The proposal will ultimately not save taxpayers a dime and will almost surely cost more than our current approach. Even worse, many smaller regional airports would likely lose air traffic control services under the new arrangement, depriving them of vital commercial and emergency access — a classic case of paying more for less.

It will allow our elected leaders to avoid raising taxes, then protest indignantly whenever the air traffic control system falls short.

The United States has the busiest air traffic control system on the planet. In 2016, airlines carried 928.9 million passengers on 9.7 million flights through our airspace. Our air traffic control system handles more flights than the next six busiest national systems combined. The system is overworked, undermanned and in serious need of updating.

Even so, and despite that heavy volume, our air traffic control system is extraordinarily safe. In fact, the privatized Canadian air traffic control system has a higher flight accident rate, despite handling only about 10 percent of the air traffic controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

There is another serious problem with this proposal.

Currently, our civilian air traffic controllers work seamlessly with Department of Defense controllers, allowing military and civilian aircraft to move safely across our nation’s skies. Experts question how well a private air traffic control system will work with our military. The Government Accountability Office, an independent Congressional investigatory agency, examined a range of issues associated with privatization. On the question of continued cooperation with Defense, the GAO report states that “It is unclear if established air defense procedures could be assumed by a non-governmental organization.”

The Pentagon also raised concerns. The Defense Department’s Policy Board on Federal Aviation determined: “The establishment of a new entity separate of the FAA raises serious concerns regarding the disposition of certain unique National Defense procedures, programs and policy. It is significant to note that the Defense Department relies on FAA ‘command and control’ capabilities in the execution of the National Defense mission.”

Safety issues aside, why transfer our air traffic control system to a new private entity when such a transfer could undermine national security?

Last year, despite the strong opposition of U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives included air traffic control privatization in legislation it approved to reauthorize the FAA. Fortunately, the Senate insisted on removal of the privatization language when Congress passed a short-term FAA reauthorization.

That authorization expires at the end of September, so the battle over privatization is again raging in the halls of Congress.

It does matter who runs our nation’s air traffic control system. It affects the safety of our skies and the ability of our military to keep us safe. The situation demands bold leadership, not evasion masquerading as entrepreneurial innovation. We need to invest in our air traffic control system, not sell it off to a private organization.

Rear Admiral Bill Center retired from the U.S. Navy in 1999 and now lectures on U.S. Foreign and National Security Policy at the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. He lives in Edmonds.

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