Time to Get U.S. Air Traffic Control Out of the 1960s

Dozens of countries have modernized successfully.


"We live in a modern age and yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past," President Donald Trump said at a White House event announcing his plan to modernize America's aging air traffic control system. "The FAA has been trying to upgrade our nation's air traffic control system for a long period of years, but after billions and billions of tax dollars spent and many years of delays, we're still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn't work."

Trump is largely throwing his support behind Rep. Bill Shuster's (R-PA) air traffic control reform proposal. Shuster's bill, which passed a House committee last year but didn't make it to the House floor, would convert the air traffic system from today's taxpayer-funded organization run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) into a self-funded, nonprofit corporation where all aviation stakeholders — passengers, airlines, airports, controllers, and pilots — would be represented on a board of directors.

This concept has the bipartisan support of numerous former leaders of the FAA and Department of Transportation, as well as most major airlines, the air traffic controllers' union, and business groups. The Clinton administration pushed a similar plan in the 1990s.

The current version grew out of the 2013 federal budget standoff and sequester, which saw furloughs of air traffic controllers and the near shut-down of 149 smaller air traffic control towers. This highlighted several flaws in the system, as more people recognized air traffic control is a fast-moving, high-tech service business that is a poor fit for a slow-moving government regulatory agency whose funding is subject to the political whims of Congress.

The US air traffic system is the world's largest, but technologically it severely lags behind other countries that have already implemented digital messaging, GPS flight tracking, and newer alternatives to the 1960s-era systems still found in US air traffic facilities.

"At a time when every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air traffic control system still runs on radar and ground-based radio systems," Trump said.

The world's second-largest air traffic system, Nav Canada, was "corporatized" 20 years ago. Over 60 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, have self-supporting air traffic control corporations.

This plan would shift air traffic control funding so that it is paid for, not by taxes, but by aircraft operators paying for the services received. A stream of user payments is more reliable than tax funding. It also enables air traffic corporations to issue long-term revenue bonds to pay for modernization projects, which is why countries like Canada and the UK are far ahead of the US.

These countries already use advanced tracking and communications technology that our controllers can only dream about. Thanks to FAA's cumbersome budgeting and upgrade process, this technology will continue to be implemented in the US in dribs and drabs over the next 15 years.

The proposal would also improve air traffic safety. Since 2001, international aviation law has called for arm's length separation between air safety regulators and the providers of air traffic services. Nearly all countries have made this change, but the United States has not. The FAA both provides air traffic services and regulates them. Finding and reporting problems requires the FAA to turn itself in — a clear, built-in conflict of interest.

For pilots and passengers, better oversight and upgraded air traffic control technology would mean shorter lines for planes waiting to take off, more direct routes between cities, and fewer delays for planes waiting to land. That would result in shorter trip times, less fuel used and fewer emissions.

In short, nonprofit air traffic corporations have a global track record of delivering increased air safety and better value for passengers, airports and aircraft operators. The time for U.S. air traffic control reform has arrived.

NEXT: The TSA Turns Harassing Travelers Into a Fine—and Pointless—Art

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  1. After the ATC move to private funding, Congress will clearly lower the federal budget to reflect said savings.

    If Americans are charged more for flying to pay for this, they should get the equivalent FAA budget returned as tax reduction.

    1. If you see progress, any progress at all, don’t throw obstacles in its way.

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        1. No, you’re not, asshole…


    2. (1/2) That’s always the rub when the government approaches the privatization realization. Will privatization cost less and be run more efficiently? Almost certainly yes. Will the tax money that currently funds said public agency be cut from the budget? Almost certainly no.

      I fly for a living. I’m not as against direct “user fees” as some others in my profession. That being said, I am very skeptical that this saves the taxpayers any money and instead just becomes another tax on top of what is already taken from my labor. If reducing the budgeted money for the FAA ATC system isn’t part of this bill, you’re just getting taxed twice for the same (sometimes shitty) service if you’re a “user”. For the record, about half of the control towers in the US are private contract towers already. The “Centers” and “Approach Controls” are all Fed (FAA and DOD).

      1. (2/2)

        “For pilots and passengers, better oversight and upgraded air traffic control technology would mean shorter lines for planes waiting to take off, more direct routes between cities, and fewer delays for planes waiting to land. That would result in shorter trip times, less fuel used and fewer emissions.

        ^ This is almost total bullshit. The short version is that the Airlines make the schedules for departures, not the FAA. Upgrading the ATC system won’t change the “Hub and Spoke” model of airline scheduling. It also won’t change things like the NY metro airspace being over saturated due to the amount of aircraft in that airspace and the amount of runways available for departures and arrivals. Further, we already have the most direct routes between cites based on the airspace available (airspace won’t change in this proposal as the ATC side of the FAA does not write the regulations for the National Airspace System). Better oversight will only occur when the Regulatory side of the FAA is reigned in.

        You want to actually see some action on reducing the cumbersome and cost producing problems in aviation (or transportation in general)? Privatize the entire DOT and get rid of that government agency. Anything else is not going to be a baby step to better, cheaper service; it will be a double tax for users and a continued tax for non users with those funds simply “reallocated” to the monetary black hole that is the Regulatory side of the FAA.

    3. Conversely, don’t block a better system, just because the asshole politicians will spend every spare penny they can find. Suppose we could privatize all Universities? Would you oppose it if the pols took the extra money and wasted it on something else? One battle at a time, one freedom at a time. Stand at the gates and fight on!

      Go with freedom, and the money will follow ?. eventually. Likewise, support every cut in spending, and the privatizations will follow.

  2. ‘we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”

    I do not recall any midair collisions between controlled aircraft lately.

    But, yes, private would be better. Of course we will see a 100% bi-partisan bill to lower the federal budget by the full amount of FAA funding in whatever century this actually occurs, right?

    1. You still drive a 1960s car, bro? There are probably a few still on the road, but just being old doesn’t mean they have accidents.

      Yes ATC is junk. But even Model Ts can still be kept running.

    2. “I do not recall any midair collisions between controlled aircraft lately.”

      This is one of the arguments I keep getting. I don’t see how it makes much sense, if for no other reason and correct me if I’m wrong, than because midair collisions aren’t a common occurrence in countries that have a privatized system either.

  3. I mean why the fuck is this a surprise to anyone? When the government has a monopoly, you will get this. And yet there are many that want the government to do anything and everything

    Jesus, people …..

  4. This idea has come up many times and has unintended consequences that need to be considered. Privatization is a good default position, but this proposal is akin to making every single road in America a toll road while still charging gas taxes. The ATC systems serves not only airlines (analogous to semi traffic on interstates), but also general aviation (analogous to cars on city streets). Everyone today pays tax on aviation fuel that is meant to fund the ATC system. ATC is already paid for by the people using it (if you don’t burn fuel, you’re not flying). The use of ATC services is also optional for many general aviation flights, so people are paying for it who don’t use it.

    The proposal to privatize ATC is the gateway to user fees on every flight activity, just like it works everywhere else in the world with privatized ATC. For example, user fees are charged in most other countries for each landing. Imagine paying a toll every time you pull into your driveway.

    If the gas tax isn’t covering the operating expense, let’s consider raising the tax instead of creating a new bureaucracy to collect user fees. Airlines don’t mind user fees because they can pass them on to their customers. User fees have nearly destroyed general aviation everywhere else in the world.

    1. You think they don’t pass on the gas tax? User fees are more like paying a parking garage. If you use it you pay, if you don’t you don’t.

      1. I’m certain they pass on all costs to customers plus some profit margin to boot. They can afford to hire accountants to handle that. For everyone else, NAV Canada has published this handy 58 page guide for how to figure out the cost of your next flight.

        http://www.navcanada.ca/EN/med…..s/Customer Guide to Charges 2016 V07 – EN_FINAL.pdf

    2. Many, many airports in the US already impose landing fees among others.

      “Some airports will charge a single fee for landing and provide gates and check-in facilities as part of that fee. Other airports will charge a lower fee for landing but will charge airlines for the use of gates and check-in facilities.

      “Landing fees at various airports cannot be compared because a number of factors affect the amount of the fee. For example, many airports in the United States receive subsidies from the FAA while airports in Canada do not. Canadian airports are actually “taxed” in the form of ground rent.

      “Fees can be based on any number of factors including weight, number of seats, time of day, aircraft home airport, and operator class. Some airports may charge a fee for specific types of operators, such as Part 135 or 121.

  5. If Trump is doing it, it must be bad…


  6. If Trump is doing it, it must be bad…


    1. Even the squirrels are Obamatrons…

  7. I expect people to freak out about Trump doing this. What I tend to forget is how paranoid some people are at the idea that maybe we won’t die if the government lets someone else handle things from time to time.

    Personally, there’s not much I support about this president, but he has some worthwhile ideas. This is one of them.

  8. I find it interesting that the people who are always saying the United States should be more like Europe suddenly become silent about that when an issue like this arises.

  9. While getting Congress out of the appropriations would allow modernization of the system to happen faster, or actually just to happen, part of this proposal makes me concerned. A not-for-profit that can issue long term bonds. Does this imply the private company would get a long-term (20+year) sole contract? In other words a government granted monopoly with no incentives to be more efficient and that would be too-big-to fail, thus potential subject to tax payer bailout?

    As others have pointed out, Congress won’t lower taxes on the non flying taxpayer. If it works well Congress will spend the profits on something else, of it doesn’t then tax payers will have to cover the distance.

    Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

  10. The Don will do it-following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan. Next privatize the TSA-give the job to the airlines & the passengers will get some respect.

  11. 1. Who would own the “nonprofit air traffic corporation?”
    2. How would the owners be compensated?
    3. Who would run the “nonprofit air traffic corporation?”
    4. What makes them “nonprofit”?
    5. Who determines how much money the corporation receives from “aircraft operators”?
    6. Who would regulate the “nonprofit air traffic corporation”?

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