Privatized air traffic control: Wrong for the UK, wrong for the US

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In the past year, major airlines have dragged their passengers off of planes, charged customers higher and higher fees, and even attempted to further shrink seats. The airlines have taken these actions to successfully boost profits at the expense of the health, safety, and comfort of passengers.

Now, these companies are no longer content to profit just off their customers—they want to privatize the entire air traffic control system.

A corporatized air traffic control system would be a disaster not only for airline passengers, but also for taxpayers and the implementation of NextGen. The FAA’s modernization plan is closer to implementation than any plan a private board of airline executives could create.

Congress should not cater to the whims of an industry that cannot maintain its computer systems without causing mass disruptions. Or an industry that cannot be bothered to offer fair prices or protect passenger safety when it conflicts with the corporate bottom line. Congress should reject the airlines’ transparent attempt to pad their profits by gaining control of the nation’s skies.

Examples of other countries’ failed attempts to privatize air traffic control are good lessons for lawmakers who are still willing to hand over the keys to the skies to the airlines. In the UK, handing over air traffic control to a private corporation, NATS Holdings, has caused constant delays, technical outages, and stranded passengers.

Contrast this with United States air traffic control under the FAA, which operates the safest system in the world despite also being the largest and most complex. Meanwhile, the UK’s privately-owned NATS needed a government bailout due to corporate shortcomings, including short-staffing and unplanned retirements. The UK government responded, bailing out the corporation to the tune of £130 million.

Half of this bailout came directly from UK taxpayers; the other half from inflated airline fees for passengers.

The UK experiment has not only been a fiscal failure, but last year, the German government took control of ATC services at the UK’s second largest airport, London Gatwick. Is it responsible to follow this same path and possibly hand over control of America’s air traffic control system to the highest bidder?

The United States should be in no hurry to replicate this failed experiment, especially when it delays the modernization process already well underway. According to the GAO, NextGen is currently on track to succeed, but privatizing air traffic control would impede its implementation. If the airlines’ motivation was modernization, and not power, they would not be pushing this corporatized plan.

Air traffic control is and should be accountable only to the American people. The major airlines say they want to “modernize” air traffic control. However, their version of “modernization” involves handing over operational control and taxing authority to corporations while delaying NextGen modernization

FlyersRights.org is the largest nonprofit airline passenger organization. It operates a hotline for passengers at 877-FLYERS6, publishes a weekly newsletter, serves on the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee and maintains an office in Washington DC for public education and advocacy. See flyersrights.org . Its President, Paul Hudson, has been a national advocate for passenger rights interests for over 25 years.