Jet Blue pilot, Capt. Joe Devito (left) navigates a NextGen flight simulator with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a Jet Blue facility in Orlando, Fla, in 2012.

Jet Blue pilot, Capt. Joe Devito (left) navigates a NextGen flight simulator with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a Jet Blue facility in Orlando, Fla, in 2012.

Editorial: Give privatizing air traffic control much more thought

By The Herald Editorial Board

Those of us who traveled by air or picked up family at Sea-Tac for Thanksgiving likely didn’t give much thought to how take-offs and landings are managed at airports or how pilots are guided in flight.

We leave that task to the folks in the air traffic control towers.

But two recent government reports have renewed discussions in Congress about modernizing air traffic control and who will be responsible for the job in the future.

Nearly everyone supports work to modernize air traffic control. Those improvements, dubbed NextGen, already are underway. The project intends over the next several years to transform the nation’s National Airspace System from ground-based control to a satellite-based system. GPS, the same technology you use in your car, will be used to shorten routes, save time and fuel, reduce carbon emissions, cut wait times on the tarmac and allow controllers — who will remain an important part of the process — to manage flights and airspace with a greater degree of safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for air safety regulations and air traffic control operations at the nation’s airports and throughout its airspace, is also in charge of rolling out NextGen. Already, the parts of the modernized system that are in operation have saved airlines and the traveling public $1.6 billion, with another $11.4 billion in savings expected over the next 15 years, according to the FAA.

At the same time, some have been critical of the pace of the FAA’s roll-out of NextGen. Most recently, a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general cast doubt on the FAA’s management of the modernization effort. As the FAA prepares to spend $5.7 billion on the project between now and 2020, the report said that partners in the modernization are skeptical of the agency’s ability to complete the project and deliver the benefits promised.

The report renewed efforts earlier proposed by some in Congress to split off air traffic control responsibilities from the FAA and turn over those duties and the NextGen roll-out to a quasi-private corporation.

The FAA’s pace and efficiency in implementing NextGen are open to debate, but we’re tiring of the automatic assumption that privatization is the fail-proof answer to bureaucracy.

And there are concerns about turning over the nation’s airspace safety to a private company, as identified by a recent Government Accountability Office report and Northwest members of Congress, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Noting that other countries have similarly restructured air traffic control services, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada, the GAO report found significant challenges in privatization, including national security, collaboration between the safety regulator and the corporation, funding the services, mitigating financial risks and the time necessary for such a transition.

It would be a complex process, one that Republicans in the committee devoted only one hearing to before passing on legislation to the full House, Larsen and DeFazio said in a recent joint statement.

Larsen and DeFazio said the GAO report shows disagreement among aviation experts on whether a private control system would be able to collaborate effectively with the Department of Defense, which controls about 15 percent of the nation’s airspace. Privatization could effectively reduce the influence of the Department of Defense to that of an adviser, rather than the partnership Defense now has with the FAA.

Nor are there guarantees that a private corporation would be able to deliver NextGen any quicker than the FAA will, considering that it could take up to seven years to transfer air traffic control responsibilities.

There are other concerns, Larsen and DeFazio say, including service to small and rural airports, potential higher costs tacked on to ticket prices by a private corporation, compensation for the $50 billion taxpayers have invested in more than 66,000 air traffic control facilities and the costs to taxpayers to bail out a private company if it fails.

While other countries have made this transition, none manage the airspace and air traffic control system with the size and complexity of the U.S. system.

It’s something to think about as you pass by the air traffic control tower on your way to departures and arrivals.

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