Air traffic controllers Travis Pierson and Ron Driscoll are controlling traffic from the Smyrna, Tennessee, airport tower on a typically busy afternoon. Two student pilots are buzzing around the field doing practice touch-and-go landings. Control of a Learjet eight miles from the runway on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan has just been handed to them from Nashville Approach Control. Two Army helicopters are lifting off from the parking ramp. The pilot of a twin-engine turboprop is complaining over ground control frequency about a problem with his IFR flight plan with Air Traffic Control (ATC).
Reflecting their combined total of 45 years of experience, Driscoll and Pierson smoothly and efficiently coordinate the flow of traffic and solve the turbo-prop pilot's problem with a phone call—all in a day's work for controllers. But what is distinctive here is that they are not employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—instead, they work for Barton ATC, Inc., a privately owned for-profit corporation that has specialized in air traffic control services since 1968.
As executive director of Johnson County Airports near Olathe, Kansas, Joe Dennis is responsible for the county's Industrial and Executive airports. The two fields are similar in size, services provided, and amount of air traffic. However, the Industrial tower is operated by Midwest ATC, a private firm, while the Executive tower is operated by the FAA. Dennis says, "Give me the money the FAA is spending operating Executive's tower, and I'll operate both towers [using private contractors], do a better job, and have money left over."
And, indeed, the facts bear out Mr. Dennis's contention. Lawrence Fortier of the FAA's Air Traffic Service office says that the typical annual cost for operating and maintaining an FAA tower like Johnson County Executive is $294,108. In contrast, Midwest ATC operates and maintains the Industrial Airport tower for $90,000 per year.
Most airports are owned by state and local governments or by private firms or individuals. Air traffic control, however, is a service that has long been the province of the federal government, and the government does not provide a control tower at every airport. When determining whether a particular airport gets an FAA control tower, the agency considers the level of activity at that airport, the availability of funds, and how many FAA controllers are available. But the final decision is subject to political considerations as well, such as pressure for or against an installation and the benefit or cost to the FAA.
The FAA calls its minimal tower installation Level I. (There are also Levels II, III, and IV, determined mainly by the amount and character of traffic.) The agency owns 125 Level I towers. There are fields that meet FAA activity criteria and don't have towers, and there are fields that no longer meet FAA activity criteria but still have towers.
Having a control tower is an important asset to an airport operator. A pilot able to choose between airports with and without towers will invariably choose the airport with a tower. Sales of fuel and ancillary support services at the preferred airport are higher. Safety is enhanced, and the reduced threat of midair collision and wheels-up landing cuts insurance liability costs for both the airport operator and users. Because of safety and liability concerns, many corporate aircraft operators will not base their planes at a field without a tower.
A simmering political feud between airport operators and the FAA over which airports get what services reached a boiling point when the FAA began shutting down towers in the wake of a strike by the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) in August 1981. Eighty towers—most of them Level I—were closed indefinitely. Airport operators watched helplessly as pilots spurned their fields, corporate aircraft operators threatened to pull out their operations, and the incidence of near-collisions in midair escalated. At the time of this writing, 41 Level I towers remain closed, and the FAA has a list of 54 towers, 15 of which are still in operation, it considers potential candidates for closing permanently.
Because of the FAA's unwillingness or inability to provide tower service to all airports that want it, airport operators have sought out and, in at least one case, have assisted in the formation of private air traffic control (ATC) firms. At the time of this writing, seven firms are manning towers at 19 airports across the country, including 4 with FAA towers closed after the PATCO strike.
In order to get a first-hand look at the service being provided by these companies, I spent several days recently observing private air traffic controllers at work in towers in Smyrna, Tennessee; Olathe, Kansas; and Owensboro, Kentucky. An airlines pilot myself, I visited with officers and staff of the two largest ATC firms—Barton ATC, headquartered in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Midwest ATC, in Olathe—and I interviewed airport managers at 16 fields with privately operated towers. With that information in hand, I headed for Washington to find out which way and how strong the political winds for and against private ATC are blowing. While I was there, I talked to Senate staff members, FAA representatives, and officials of the American Association of Airport Executives.
I spent a morning getting to know Jim Kaiser, a salty old former FAA controller now working the Owensboro tower for ATC Services, Inc. ATC Services came into being in 1981 through the cooperative efforts of the Owensboro Airport manager; Texas Gas, an airport tenant and operator of a fleet of corporate aircraft; and the chief of the FAA's Southern Region ATC Division. When Owensboro's tower was closed after the PATCO strike, a group of local businesses headed by Texas Gas raised funds for operating it through a "Save the Tower Committee." The airport's manager encouraged Tom Goetz, a retired FAA tower chief, to form an ATC company and negotiated with the FAA for a $1-per-year lease of the tower.
During lulls in the action, Kaiser recounted his experience with the FAA and his subsequent hiring by ATC Services. He had been medically retired because of a heart problem but after regaining his health was told by the FAA that in his mid-50s he was "too old" to go back to work. He enjoys his profession and seized on the opportunity to return to the tower when Tom Goetz called on him to help get a new ATC company started.
Even though no longer with the FAA, Goetz administered Kaiser's "area checkout," a practical exam required by the FAA for controllers moving into a new facility. (The fact that the FAA allowed a civilian to perform a "certification"-like function indicates a willingness and ability of the FAA, at least on the regional level, to adapt rapidly to a privatized ATC environment.)
I watched and listened as Jim Kaiser found a nervous and apparently disoriented student pilot approaching the airport from the opposite direction he'd reported. Without comment, he cleared the pilot to land. The pilot of a corporate jet asked over ground control frequency for a recommendation among three available restaurants on the field—a recommendation Kaiser declined to make, explaining to me that since base operators on the field live or die by the amount of transient business they get, they all listen in to make sure that his comments over the air are impartial. Like an old-time cop walking the beat, Kaiser was there to direct traffic and protect life and property, but because of his close association with members of the airport community, his actions were tempered by commonsense and good will.
In my conversations with airport managers who have contracted with private ATC firms, I found that the average cost for operating and, in most cases, maintaining privately operated Level I towers is $96,000 per year compared to an average FAA cost of $294,000 per year. The same firms that have provided ATC services have constructed and equipped several towers varying in cost from $130,000 to $450,000. By comparison, the FAA estimates that in 1981 its average cost to construct and equip a Level I tower was $1.4 million.
Based on my personal observations of controllers at work, the comments of airport managers, and an examination of safety records compiled by ATC firms and submitted to the FAA, the private companies are providing safe and professional service—with a plus. Unlike their PATCO-era counterparts, the privately employed controllers are friendly and courteous, and the firms are responsive to the wishes of the local airport authorities who have contracted their services.
How can these firms provide this level of service so much more cheaply than the FAA? Partly because when the FAA opens a tower, it assumes a "cost is no object" approach. The facilities are what one non-FAA controller called "plush." He had opened the Hobbs, New Mexico, tower after it was closed because of the PATCO strike. He found everything there just as the FAA had left it, and he told me, "They had things there I'd never seen, even in 20 years of controlling traffic in the military, and I doubt if they ever used much of it."
While looking at the FAA's price tag of $1.4 million for a Level I tower, one should remember that a tower is nothing more than a structure that gets controllers high enough to have an unobstructed view of runways and taxi-ways and provides facilities for communicating with airplanes and monitoring weather instruments and navigation aids. A typical tower is a concrete block structure 50 feet high with a glass-sided cab on top.
Because of ever-present cost considerations, private firms often take advantage of existing structures such as airplane hangars and passenger terminals to support tower cabs, rather than building entirely new structures. In other cases, airports have towers that have been abandoned by former military tenants; while the FAA turns its nose up at such towers (it seldom uses them, and then only on an interim basis until it can build its own facility), the structures are put to good use by private operators.
There are yet other instances where existing structures haven't been adequate, but visibility considerations have made it feasible for private firms to put tower cabs on top of trailer houses. Where the situation has warranted an entirely new tower, as in Mesa, Arizona, private firms have constructed full-scale towers rivaling their FAA counterparts in structure and facility, and they have done it for about half of what the FAA spends for similar installations.
(Incidentally, one advantage of privately constructed towers is that ATC firms waste no time building them. Construction of tower cabs on top of trailer houses is naturally less time-consuming than building a full-scale tower, but even in Mesa, Barton ATC took only seven days to install a tower—a pedestal topped by a prefabricated cab. It was fully operational about 30 days after Barton had signed the contract with the airport.)
The cost of tower installation has just begun with construction. Amenities such as tower elevators and kitchens are eschewed by cost-conscious private firms but are standard equipment in FAA towers. FAA radio equipment is complex, built to high specifications, and designed to last many years—which sounds good. In practice, however, the radios are expensive to buy and maintain and become obsolete before they are worn out. In contrast, private firms rely on simple, inexpensive radios that are easy to repair.
And when the FAA makes a mistake in purchasing equipment, it's a big one. According to a number of controllers I spoke to, in the late 1970s the FAA purchased thousands of radio headsets that, it was discovered once they were in use, had the annoying habit of shocking the controllers at random intervals—a feature with intriguing potential for psychological conditioning. The entire lot had to be junked. Officials at the FAA do not deny the incident.
The FAA keeps a full-time maintenance person at almost all FAA towers, puttering around waiting for a radio to break down. By contrast, private firms operating more than one tower have only one central maintenance site. When a radio fails at a Barton ATC tower, controllers rely on back-up systems while awaiting a replacement set. At the same time, they send the malfunctioning unit to their company headquarters for repair. Barton ATC's maintenance staff consists of one technician who keeps radios going in 6 or 7 towers—a job that would require 6 or 7 technicians if the FAA were doing it. Barton has been successfully using this procedure since 1979.
Another area of major savings is in controller payroll. The experience at Hobbs, New Mexico, provides a good comparison. The FAA was operating the tower with seven controllers, but a private contractor staffed the tower with three controllers. Also, a privately employed controller's salary was about 40 percent less than what an FAA controller was paid.
I asked several controllers how they felt about making less than their FAA counterparts. Most of them were former military controllers who were too old by FAA standards to be hired when they left the service. The universal sentiment among them was that they liked being controllers, and this was the best opportunity for them to practice their trade. They also sensed that there was great potential for expansion of private ATC, and they expect to benefit with their companies from that expansion.
One of the most significant differences between private ATC firms and the FAA is in labor-management relations. Prior to the PATCO strike, relations at the FAA between controllers and management were notoriously bad and morale was low. FAA officials attributed these problems to PATCO militancy—yet more than a year after the controllers union was decertified, the Wall Street Journal reported that "relations between air-traffic controllers and their bosses are slipping back toward the open hostility that preceded [the 1981] strike." And a government-appointed task force concluded that "heavy-handed supervision" that was previously held in check by PATCO is rampant. One commission member wrote, "Working controllers are becoming increasingly negative [toward FAA management] as the months roll along."
In contrast, relations between controllers and their employers at private firms are far more cordial. To some extent, this is because ATC firms are relatively small, and most of the firms' officers are former controllers themselves and intimately acquainted with the demands of the occupation. This healthier relationship has resulted in cost savings. Controllers at private firms don't mind taking on tasks like office work, doing weather observations, and giving classroom instruction—which FAA controllers consider outside their "job description."
Because they aren't hindered by a large bureaucracy and political considerations, private firms are flexible. Barton ATC, for example, was confronted with a high cost of instrument consoles for housing communication and weather devices in their towers. So they began constructing their own in a back room.
At first glance the disparity between the cost of private versus government air traffic control towers seems incredible, but there is nothing magical about the savings private firms make possible. If a firm doesn't control costs and meet contractual obligations as well as or better than competing firms, it goes out of business. The FAA faces no such constraints. As Frank Carlucci, described by Federal Times as one of the "country's most prominent civil servants," said at the end of his 26-year career in government: "We've got a serious problem in government with inducements. Nobody gets any rewards for saving money. Generally if you save money in government, OMB or somebody else comes along and takes it away. Your job description [and hence salary] is based on the number of people who work for you, not on the amount of money you save, not on your performance."
While talking to airport managers who have hired private firms to operate their towers, I found enthusiastic approval of the ATC services received, especially among those who had previously had FAA-operated towers. In particular, managers cited their satisfaction with increasing traffic levels and the fact that they were "in charge" of tower operation via the contractual relationship. Owensboro's manager, John Games, told me that administration of his contract with ATC Services takes his office less than one hour per month.
The record of private ATC firms indicates a high degree of competence. The FAA issues "violations" when it notes transgressions of Federal Air Regulations. One of the two largest ATC companies, Midwest, has never had a controller violation in its four years of operation; the other, Barton, has had one controller violation in 14 years of operation—a virtually flawless record.
Since private companies are providing excellent service at one-third the cost of similar FAA service, why isn't the use of private contractors more widespread, especially with the FAA planning to shrink further the number of FAA towers? The answer lies in the way towers are funded.
There are actually two sources of funding for the FAA. The first is general federal revenue, a direct and unadorned taxpayer subsidy of the system. The second source is a scheme of so-called user taxes on aviation fuel, airline tickets, and air freight. These user taxes, however, are a far cry from authentic user fees.
As Robert Poole pointed out in a Heritage Foundation study, the user taxes are not proportional to the true cost of ATC service. Guiding a Learjet carrying two people between New York and Chicago costs just as much in the way of air controller personnel and equipment as guiding a huge DC-10 airliner, yet the Learjet pays only a fraction of what the DC-10 must pay. Also, in a system with limited resources, the Learjet is displacing other aircraft from the segment of space and time that it occupies, thus imposing additional costs on DC-10s, 727s, and other potential users of that segment. A Transportation Department analysis of airport and airway costs found that airlines were covering 95 percent of their allocated costs via the user taxes, but general aviation was covering less than 20 percent of its allocated costs.
This arrangement distorts the market in other ways, as well. Because the FAA is virtually guaranteed its funds from general revenue and user taxes, it need not worry about customer dissatisfaction. It's no surprise that powerful aviation interests have lobbied hard to preserve a system that shields them from the true cost of the services they use.
Currently, airport operators with private contractors are funding their towers predominantly with local tax revenues, but also with donated funds, contracts with airport users, or a combination of the above. With two exceptions, the FAA is not funding any private contract tower. So in a sense, most airports with private contractors are paying for ATC service twice—once in the form of aviation taxes and again with local revenues and contributions. Small wonder that the airport operators prefer the "free" FAA towers. And meanwhile, the taxpayer is stuck with the hugely inflated bill.
Right now an opportunity exists to remedy this situation wherein the most expensive option is the one most likely to be chosen. Responding to constituent complaints about tower closings in his home state of New Mexico, Sen. Pete Domenici (R), in consultation with the FAA's Air Traffic and Legal offices, wrote legislation amending the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982 to allow federal funds to be spent for the contract operation of ATC facilities. The legislation also ensures that the government not be liable for damages resulting from actions of private firms, thus obviating one of the FAA's major objections to the contract concept.
The amendment received widespread Senate approval. Sen. Robert Packwood (R–Ore.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said that provisions of the Domenici amendment would "result in an overall improvement of the air traffic control system. With the ability of local governments to contract ATC services from the private sector, newly trained FAA controllers can be assigned to the larger airports presently understaffed since [the PATCO strike]. Current experience with contracted ATC services indicates that cost to staff control towers is approximately one-half the cost associated with FAA controller staffing." By a rather tortuous process that only a parliamentarian could love, the Domenici amendment became law as part of the inaptly named Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982.
To date, the only privately operated towers the FAA has chosen to grant funds to are in Farmington, New Mexico, and, as of February, Owensboro, Kentucky. R.J. Van Vuren, director of the FAA's Air Traffic Service, told the American Association of Airport Executives last December: "The use of contracting authority will not be expanded to other facilities until the [Farmington] pilot program is carefully evaluated and a national policy is developed, coordinated, and approved by the Administrator of the FAA. We plan to complete these actions by the end of 1983." The FAA relented for Owensboro only because of pressure from Sen. Wendell Ford (D–Ky.).
In fact, there is nothing to evaluate. FAA towers closed after the PATCO strike in Hobbs, Owensboro, and Enid, Oklahoma, as well as in Farmington, have been in operation for over a year. Other non-FAA towers have been operated by contractors for as many as 15 years now. The FAA may have some legitimate problems determining eligibility, but at the very least, they could permit the immediate contract operation of towers still closed as a result of the PATCO strike. One can only conclude that the FAA is buying time with its "pilot program," fearing that the prospect of private ATC is a threat to its ATC empire.
Which is not to say there is no support within the FAA for private contracting. One FAA staff member confided to me that the agency had been considering private contract operation of towers well before Senator Domenici began agitating for privatization legislation. And C.R. Melugin, director of the FAA's Southwest Region, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "What's going on in Farmington is a good demonstration of why air-traffic control should be a business, and not the function of government." But now that private ATC is a serious proposal requiring the FAA administrator's approval for further expansion, agency functionaries are skittish about the issue lest they end up on the wrong side when the final decision is made.
FAA Administrator Lynn Helms is said to be favorably inclined to privatizing some FAA functions, but he is a political appointee, and his tenure can't be expected to last much longer than Ronald Reagan's. Those middle- and upper-echelon FAA officials who oppose any move toward private ATC will still be around long after Helms is gone. FAA bureaucrats do not advance by saving the taxpayers' money; they advance by expanding the FAA's sphere of power. And if they were to adopt the notion of private ATC, they would be reducing their control of tax revenue, decreasing the size of their departments, and tacitly admitting that their management of ATC is an economic failure. Jack Barker of the FAA Southern Region told me, "There are no plans to hand any FAA towers over to private industry."
And if they should, where would it end? There is no legal barrier to private operation of any FAA ATC facility, and there are several serious proposals for privatizing the entire ATC system, not just Level I towers (see sidebar, below). The next logical step would be to move private contractors into the FAA's 157 Level II towers, which I estimate would save $35 million per year.
FAA commitment to the status quo has become so blatant that Edward Tripp of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association suggested in a magazine article that a proposed review of ATC improvements "should not be conducted or led by the FAA or any of its traditional technical advisers. The commitments to entrenched ideas and prejudices are too great."
If the FAA would expand contract ATC to just those 41 towers still closed as a result of the PATCO strike, the savings to the taxpayers in the first year would be $10 million over the cost of their being reopened and run by the FAA. If all Level I towers were contracted out, the initial annual savings would be $25 million. In addition to cost savings, there would be the benefit of greater safety and associated savings in insurance liability and avoided accidents. And the FAA could send controllers now in Level I towers to en route ATC facilities, many of which are still understaffed as a result of the PATCO strike.
A tool that could be very useful in a battle for privatizing ATC is a requirement of the Office of Management and Budget that federal agencies must contract services that aren't "inherent" government functions. ATC can hardly be considered an "inherent" function of government, since originally it wasn't even a government function at all. The first ATC service and many of the early technological innovations in ATC were provided by Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC), a not-for-profit company set up in 1929 with airlines as its stockholders.
The OMB also requires that if actual bids show a savings to the government of 10–25 percent, then contracts must be awarded. Private ATC has demonstrated that far greater savings than that are likely. If the FAA were to follow the OMB directive, we can assume that all Level I towers would very likely be contracted out and Level II towers would follow in short order.
The Air Force is currently following the OMB procedure for letting bids, and already, two of the 80 towers under the jurisdiction of the Air Force Communications Command have been contracted out. A spokesman for Air Force contracting at Rome Air Force Base in New York told me that present plans are to increase rapidly the number of contract towers.
Critics of the notion of privately operated towers raise some objections, of course. Primary among these is the FAA's assertion that its "responsibility for ensuring air safety" prevents it from proceeding rapidly with privatization. Actually, the opposite is the case: safety is being seriously degraded by the FAA's resistance. There are hundreds of busy airports that could have the additional safety provided by a control tower if funds available could be stretched by utilizing private controllers. For instance, Garry Havens of Midwest ATC estimates that his controllers have prevented 20 to 30 wheels-up landings since his company began operations in 1978 at six fields that didn't qualify for FAA towers.
There is another, more subtle influence concerning controllers and safety, and that is controller attitude. Air Transport World noted recently that prior to the PATCO strike, "controllers vented their anger and frustration by issuing extra vectors, holding airplanes longer than necessary, and generally slowing and interfering with the ATC system"—scarcely a prescription for safety. The FAA is in the last stages of a post-PATCO honeymoon with its controllers, and there are rumblings about a new controller union. FAA controllers are in a position to demand monopoly wages, and their demands will be backed up with the threat of the type of actions noted above. The more widespread the use of private ATC firms, the less potent will be the threats of this kind.
Many airport managers I talked to who now patronize private ATC firms are still stinging from the financial and political problems that arose during their years with FAA controllers. But these managers are universal in their praise of controllers with private ATC firms. As Duard Spleth, manager of the Enid, Oklahoma, airport told me: "The attitude [of the private controllers] is that if we don't do a good job, we won't be here next year. Try telling that to a Fed."
The FAA has also raised concerns about liability in case of an accident involving private ATC. In fact, private ATC firms are required by their contracts with airports to insure against liability stemming from their "wrongful acts or omissions." Typically, contractors are required to carry $10 million of liability insurance. (This insurance covers only controller error. Insurance coverage for airport owners, aircraft operators, etc., is a separate issue.) Additional insurance is relatively inexpensive. According to Mr. Havens of Midwest ATC, an additional $10 million of liability insurance could be purchased for less than $10,000 per year if it were deemed necessary.
In the past, only Lloyd's of London insured private ATC firms, but as private ATC has expanded and experience has shown that it is a relatively low-risk operation, at least two more insurers—Marine Underwriters and Fairfax Underwriters—have entered the field, and the costs of premiums have gone down.
Typical of the innovative approach of an aggressive young company is a Midwest ATC proposal for further liability insurance savings. As outlined by Havens, the proposal would involve creation of a nonprofit corporation owned by airports. Each member airport would make annual contributions based on its activity level. Based on a five-cent landing fee at 125 airports and assuming a rate of return of 10 percent, the fund would become self-sustaining in six to seven years, and liability insurance would be supplemented and eventually replaced by the fund depending on experience level. Conceivably, member airports could eventually draw a dividend from the fund.
Opponents of privatization question where controllers would come from in the event of a rapid expansion of private ATC. Actually, there is available for employment a pool of thousands of FAA-certified controllers—retired or former military controllers or former FAA controllers.
There are also several non-FAA schools training controllers now. Barton ATC operates a completely private, for-profit, School of Aviation Technology in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that trains controllers and weather observers. Graduates of the school gain practical experience working under veteran controllers in Barton-operated towers, and they have met the requirement of accredited classroom instruction necessary for FAA certification. Catonsville Community College near Baltimore and Community College of Beaver County in Pennsylvania both have programs leading to FAA controller certification. Several universities, such as Embry-Riddle in Florida and the University of Oklahoma at Norman, have major schools of aviation that could easily be expanded to provide full controller certification courses of study if the demand for non-FAA trained controllers warranted. And the question is unavoidable—why should taxpayers bear the cost of training some controllers as well as paying them an average trainee salary of $15,000 per year while other prospective controllers are willing to pay for their own training?
The situation is simple despite FAA obfuscation and foot-dragging. Private ATC is cheap, safe, efficient, and capable of expanding rapidly into a hundred or more airports. FAA ATC, because the FAA is a political beast, is expensive and inefficient. Instead of expanding service to small airports, the FAA is shrinking service. Indeed, for improved efficiency, greater safety, and reduced cost of air traffic control, the choice is exceptionally clear: private ATC towers is the way to fly.
John Doherty is a commercial pilot with an 18-year background in military and civilian aviation. He won a Washington Monthly Journalism Award for his June 1982 article in REASON, "Collision Course," exposing the FAA's resistance to an effective collision-avoidance system.
The nation's air traffic control (ATC) system consists of three kinds of facilities: control towers at airports, en route centers, and approach/departure control facilities. Controllers in airport towers direct traffic on the ground and in the airport traffic pattern, an area within about a five-mile radius of small airports. Controllers at en route centers provide navigation and traffic separation services to airplanes flying between airports. Controllers at approach/departure facilities provide the communications and control link between towers and en route centers.
Pilots may elect to use the ATC system on either IFR (instrument flight rules) or VFR (visual flight rules) flight plans. Pilots on VFR flights are responsible for providing their own separation from other airplanes, and they must remain well clear of clouds and fog. Pilots on IFR flight plans are under "positive control"—that is, they are constantly in contact with an ATC facility—and can fly through visibility-obscuring weather.
On a typical IFR flight, a pilot files a flight plan with the en route center in his area. Center approval of the flight plan is passed to the pilot by the tower a few minutes before he takes off. Shortly after his departure, he is directed to contact a departure controller who monitors and directs his progress until he is at the proper point to be switched over to the en route center. The center then monitors the flight and requires turns and altitude changes to insure that IFR airplanes maintain adequate separation. As the aircraft approaches its destination, control is passed from the center to the approach control, then to the local tower where the flight plan terminates.
VFR flights are largely informal affairs—in fact, some pilots flying VFR don't even bother filing flight plans. Except in the vicinity of airports with control towers, VFR pilots are not controlled. However, once in an airport traffic pattern, VFR pilots are bound by the instructions of the control tower.
The possibilities for a vastly improved and less costly air traffic control system are great. Air traffic control is essentially the processing and transmission of information, and we are in the midst of a revolution in information handling—a revolution that the Federal Aviation Administration is apparently passing up.
One of the most recent of many proposals for radically improved ATC comes from Gerard K. O'Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton University, author of The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, and an experienced amateur pilot. He details a system relying on state-of-the-art microprocessors, computers, and satellites and able to pinpoint airplanes within inches. The information thus derived can be used for on-board en route navigation, instrument approaches, collision avoidance, weather display, and traffic control.
The system proposed by O'Neill would cost a fraction of what is currently spent for ATC. A single airborne installation costing $1,500 would replace $65,000 worth of instruments and would give more accurate performance. Installation of main computers and positioning of satellites could be done at low cost relative to FAA plans. Another virtue: the proposal is uniquely suited to true user-fee financing.
O'Neill has presented his proposal directly to FAA Administrator Helms and has satisfactorily responded to objections raised by FAA engineers, but the FAA is not interested. Recognizing this, O'Neill suggests that ATC functions be turned over to a private corporation modeled after ARINC—the not-for-profit corporation that originated ATC services and is now providing communication services for the airlines—or to Comsat.
REASON's Robert Poole recently proposed in a study for the Heritage Foundation that ATC functions be turned over to a not-for-profit corporation owned by airspace users. The corporation would in turn contract out operation of ATC facilities to for-profit firms. An ATC system structured in this way, subject to market pressures as a result of direct user fees, would be quick to exploit available technology, perhaps in the way suggested by O'Neill, to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
Another plan for privatizing air traffic control was submitted to the FAA last year by the Sunlight Corporation, a communications and financial services firm in Washington that has done projects for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, NASA, and other agencies. Sunlight proposed the creation of a private corporation that would "assume responsibility for operational management of the air traffic control system" while the FAA would set policy and see that the corporation's contractual obligations were met.
The outcome of the debate over private operation of control towers may well be a preview of the future of ATC. Will the FAA be able to cling to the creaking system it now operates, or will the ATC of the future be a vastly safer, cheaper, and more efficient system employing modern technology, owned and operated by private firms, and paid for by its users?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Towering Entrepreneurs".