The White House has released Donald Trump's proposed budget. Anything that isn't connected to the military or border protection has been put on the chopping block, including items such as federal assistance to the Meals On Wheels program. But there is one item in the budget proposal that has been on the wet dream list of many Libertarian conservatives for years, and which threatens the safety of aviation: privatizing the air traffic control system.
Trump called the current air traffic control system "obsolete" when he met with airline executives in February. His budget includes a "multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration to an independent, non-governmental organization." What he is really doing is giving control of the nation's airspace over to the airlines and potentially making flying more expensive and less safe in the process.
The civil aviation world is made up of two main branches: scheduled airline service, and general aviation -- everything from business jets and charter services to guys who use their Cessnas, Pipers, Cirruses, etc. as an alternate means of transportation. The two branches share much of the airspace, and both utilize the same air traffic control system. But, as Fortune notes, privatizing the system would likely give ATC priority to the airlines at the expense of everybody else. Here's why that is dangerous.
While not explicitly spelled out in the Trump budget, privatization brings with it an increased likelihood that user fees would be implemented for ATC services. The current system is paid for by taxes on aviation fuel, and some of the airlines have wanted to replace those taxes with user fees for a number of years.
I earned a private pilot's certificate in 2006, and so I have become fairly familiar with the ATC system. Airlines operate under IFR -- Instrument Flight Rules -- and are required to be in contact with ATC at all times. Civil aviation can also operate under IFR, but lower flying aircraft will frequently operate under Visual Flight Rules -- VFR, if the weather is clear and visibility good. Aircraft flying VFR can talk to ATC, but are not required to, unless you are in the vicinity of a larger airport.
Under a privatized, user fee funded system there are two things that are almost guaranteed to happen that will decrease safety for all. First, VFR pilots will skip the optional contact with ATC to avoid having to pay for the service. Those planes will still be tracked on radar, but ATC will have only limited information about them, and little to no idea of where they are going or what their intentions are.
Second, IFR-rated pilots will fly into marginal conditions under VFR to save on ATC fees when they should have filed an instrument flight plan. That will put the pilots, their passengers, and those on any IFR aircraft in the vicinity at increased risk.
Then there's the matter of airport control towers. Currently there are three types of airports: uncontrolled fields with no control tower, airports with control towers that operate during part of the day, and airports with control towers that are open 24/7. Under the private sector's never-ending quest to save money there is a very good chance that control towers at some small but busy airports will be closed or that staffing and/or hours of operation will be reduced.
Trump's proposal has some support in Congress, particularly in the House. Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said,
"I commend President Trump for his leadership in calling for restructuring the role of the FAA. This budget takes the next step in what our committee produced last year — separating the air traffic control function from the federal government and establishing an independent, not-for-profit organization to provide this service."
But Shuster's enthusiasm doesn't seem to carry over to the other side of the Capitol, where both the Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) expressed reservations. They wrote,
The public would not be well-served by exempting any part of the FAA from congressional oversight. The annual appropriations process provides the oversight of agency resources necessary to ensure accountability for program performance and a sustained focus on aviation safety.
There may be issues with delays, cancelled flights, headaches dealing with security, etc. but the fact remains that the U.S. civil aviation system has an excellent safety record and it generally works well for all who use it. Yes, some modernization is needed in some areas, and in a few instances the FAA is already working on that. But giving control of the system over to a private vendor that would likely favor the needs of the big airlines over other users of the system is not the answer, and would clearly jeopardize the safety of all who fly.