Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #11

Issue devoted solely to a response to the escalation of the campaign against ATC reform by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Contents of this issue:

Because of the escalation of the campaign against ATC reform by controllers’ union NATCA, this issue is devoted solely to a response to that campaign. Other ATC news and commentary will have to wait till next issue, since I have devoted much of the past month to researching and preparing a detailed response to the White Paper issued by NATCA last month. It’s a truly amazing (and revealing) piece of work, as you will see just by reading the Executive Summary of our new report in response to it (below). While this summary only hits a few of the main points, I urge you to download the full report and see for yourself who has the stronger case.

You will find our new report on the Reason website.

Meanwhile, here is the Executive Summary.

Why An Air Traffic Control Corporation Makes Sense
A Response to the NATCA White Paper

by Robert W. Poole, Jr.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) recently issued a White Paper which argues against the “privatization” of air traffic control (ATC) services. This policy brief responds to NATCA’s paper.

Overall, the White Paper is off-target, in that much of its argument is directed against a form of privatization-outsourcing-which no one has seriously proposed for the national ATC system. The White Paper does acknowledge several examples of ATC reform overseas that do follow the models proposed for this country: conversion of the FAA’s existing ATC organization into a user-fee-supported business entity. But instead of dealing seriously with this model, the White Paper simply takes potshots at three of the overseas ATC corporations. In doing so, the paper provides no quantitative data or analysis. Its case is presented only in the form of anecdotes and assertions.

The White Paper also misleads by omission. It fails to explain the global trend toward converting ATC departments of government into user-fee-supported ATC corporations. That trend now extends to 29 countries (including much of Europe, Canada, and both Australia and New Zealand). Corporatized ATC providers now control over 80 percent of the world’s air traffic and well over half the world’s airspace.

When it comes to specifics, the White Paper is factually incorrect on a host of major issues in which it uses selective or incorrect information about the corporatized ATC providers of Australia, Canada, and the U.K. For example:

Safety – Contrary to the White Paper, air safety has improved in Canada and the U.K. since corporatization. Moreover, safety is greater at the U.S. control towers run by private contractors than at comparable towers run by the FAA.

Security – Converting to a corporate form of organization would not compromise national security, or 29 countries would not have done so. Nav Canada cooperated smoothly with NORAD and the FAA in bringing down all planes on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cost Savings – Contrary to the White Paper’s assertions, significant cost savings have been achieved by ATC corporations overseas, which have led to reductions in user fees.

Staffing – The White Paper distorts actual staffing changes in Canada, where Nav Canada is increasing the size of the controller workforce to adequate levels. But it also discounts the possibility of future cost savings thanks to facility consolidation and advanced technology, savings which have been achieved since Australia’s corporatization in 1995.

Cross Subsidy – Contrary to NATCA, the globally accepted method of charging aircraft for ATC services includes significant cross subsidies (which NATCA claims would be a casualty of “privatization”). And special protections have been legislated for remote areas in Canada, a provision which could be adapted for rural areas in this country.

Modernization and Funding – The White Paper dismisses the argument that a shift to user fee funding will facilitate modernization. But the overseas experience demonstrates not only that this does occur, but illuminates how and why it does.

Contract Towers – Long the target of NATCA litigation, the more than 200 small-airport U.S. control towers are subjected to much innuendo in the White Paper, which ignores their superior safety record in addition to major cost savings.

In short, the NATCA White Paper is the farthest thing from an objective analysis of the issues involved in reforming air traffic control. Rather, it is best understood as a plea to maintain the status quo: a highly labor-intensive system run for the benefit of its employees rather than its users (the customers). The global track record of ATC corporatization is powerful and positive, and offers valuable guidance for reforming the U.S. ATC system.

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