Trump’s Air Traffic Control Proposal Is Better for Safety, Cost, and Congestion

Donald Trump proposed to reform air traffic control today, and reaction to it seems to break down largely along party lines (except that the air traffic controllers union is supportive).

I’m torn by some of the specifics, but not about the problem. US air traffic control is antiquated, leads to delays and fewer flights, and is one of the major things creating frustrations about air travel today – why many flights take longer than they did 20 years ago. And the system isn’t prepared for major outages.

Attempts to modernize air traffic control have floundered for 30 years. We still largely use radar rather than GPS, voice rather than digital communication, and actually continue to use paper flight strips (including changes that are hand written) rather than electronic data to manage traffic flow.

The federal Government Accountability Office and Department of Transportation have documented the failures of air traffic control over and over in both Democrat and Republican administrations.

  • The proposal is not privatization. Instead the proposal is simply to split safety regulation (remaining with the federal government) and service provision (management of air traffic control by a non-profit with a stakeholder board). UK air traffic control is actually partially privatized (and heavily regulated), that’s not what’s being proposed here.

  • This is how over 50 countries do it, with great success. NavCanada is more cost efficient than the FAA, and has seen costs falling (a 30% drop in inflation-adjusted cost) while the the FAA budget has grown by 95% between 1996 and 2015, and there has been no overall gain in ATC productivity (air traffic control costs have risen 71% since 1997).

  • The FAA’s Office of Inspector General finds that attempts to modernize air traffic control have flushed billions of dollars, and are unlikely to improve because FAA management and procurement problems are systemic.

  • Twenty six years after NavCanada rolled out electronic flight strips — in 2028 – 89 US FAA facilities are projected to use them.


Copyright: cylonphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

Separating the role of safety regulator from actual service provider makes sense. The FAA doesn’t fly the planes and shouldn’t be the one directing where they fly either. ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, identified splitting these roles as a best safety practice in 2001 and the U.S. remains “one of the few developed countries not in compliance with arm’s-length safety regulation.”

In last year’s proposal fewer than a third of board seats would be selected by the airlines. American and United favor the plan, Delta opposes it. Delta benefits from congestion in New York which keeps out competition and their older planes would require greater investment to meet digital air traffic control requirements.

Air traffic control is hardly the only thing wrong in aviation, it may not even be the number one thing, but it’s definitely a thing. It’s why all the investment in airport infrastructure at New York LaGuardia (and maybe eventually JFK) will be largely for naught.

The model here is Canadian air traffic control, which does a phenomenal job by world standards. It’s hardly a panacea, maybe not even the best we can do, but better than what we have.

It’s not obvious that we’ll get this, we may see it move through the House Transportation Committee but the current administration has much on its plate and not a great deal of legislative accomplishment so far under its belt.

On the other hand one of the controversial things I believe is that 20 years from now planes will fly like cars drive and we won’t need air traffic control at all.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The devil is in the details. I personally don’t believe Trump has a clue about what he’s proposing but if the details are good and it’s a positive for the aviation industry and the traveling public I would be supportive. I’m not exactly sure how a NON PROFIT organization will cover these upgrade costs but I guess we’ll find out when they finally submit actual details.

  2. “20 years from now planes will fly like cars drive and we won’t need air traffic control at all.”

    35,000 Americans die in auto accidents every year. But keep leading those fine travel thoughts!

  3. I voted for Trump, and I’m pleased with the job he’s doing so far. However, I’m not totally on board with this. There was some press pieces thrown out that anticipate user fee’s going up 20-30% in order to pay for it, and apparently the non-commercial aviation community is largely against the plan.

    So I guess I’ll wait and see. I haven’t read enough about their complaints to offer an informed opinion.

  4. I agree with Gary in concept. But the U.S. doesn’t have the legal equivalent of the Canadian Crown Corporation, as the states, not the federal government, have the sole power to regulate corporations in form, structure and corporate operations. It would take a major revision in federal law for Congress to undertake this, and a significant risk that it would not pass constitutional muster absent an amendment.

    So, don’t expect anything of substance on this front anytime soon.

  5. @Mangar those estimates are simply wrong, put out by folks lobbying to prevent this (like Delta)

    There’s so much misinformation coming out about the idea from lobby shops right now (and those being paid by the lobby shops) for instance I just got a missive from “aviation across america” which represents private pilots and other groups afraid that THEIR costs will rise (they’re pretty subsidized nwo). they say that the UK’s NATS is the analogue for what Trump has proposed (as I note in the post above, it’s not, the closest analogue is NavCanada) and that’s then an excuse to somehow blame air traffic control reform for the british airways IT meltdown (!).

  6. In addition to upgrading and modernizing the air traffic control system, the Trump Administration should clean house at the FAA from top to bottom. For example, there is always a perpetual rivalry between the NTSB, and the FAA. In the past, the inaction and ineptitude of the FAA, regarding not implementing the recommendations of the NTSB, following fatal and non-fatal accidents, have led to more problems. As an example, although everyone miraculously survived Flt. 1549 (US Air), piloted by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the NTSB made over three dozen safety recommendations, as a result of that forced landing. The FAA ignored nearly all of the recommendations. What is the point having the NTSB, if the FAA fights them? Trump should therefore do something about the FAA, and “drain the swamp”, at that bloated bureaucracy.

  7. Gary,

    The problem with comparing efficiencies of the US NAS to either Canada or Europe really is the amount of traffic the various entities move. Many of the delays in the US are related to demand/capacity imbalance at the airport. We can easily reduce delays if we reduce the number of flights scheduled to use an airport. In the US, in the general case, we don’t let the government regulate the number of takeoffs and landings at an airport. (In fact, only 4 airports in the US are subject to slot controls; ORD and ATL are not even on the list.) Here, we let the free market decide. The Europeans, on the other hand, are heavily slot controlled. I don’t know how to get good numbers on this, but the UK alone has 25 airports that are slot controlled.

    When comparing the amount of traffic various systems handle, Eurocontrol’s “busiest day ever” was just under 35,000 flights on Sept 9, 2016. In comparison? Some numbers I found form NATCA indicate that the US handles 87,000 flights per day. By passenger movements, the busiest airport in Europe (LHR) handles about 3/4 of the volume of ATL, and a little bit less than ORD. Remind me LHR, CDG, and AMS are considered the poster-children for well-run airport operations?

    Second, there are limits to the benefits that advanced automation can provide. “Pure” airport-direct-airport routings will never exist — at least not at the major airports — as there will always be some sort of metering fix outside the runway that aircraft must be sequenced for. So anybody who claims this would be a benefit under a different system would be pulling your leg.

    Back to the economics, you’ve seen the ticket prices for intra-UK flights, haven’t you? They’re ridiculous compared to US standards. There’s reasons EasyJet and RyanAir have become very popular, whereas Spirit and Frontier are still an afterthought.

    In short, I’d entertain more discussions on corporatization/privatization if there was reason to believe the supposed benefits were actually real, and one could prove or even demonstrate that this other entity could deliver on them.

  8. Bottom line: airlines will find this an excuse to add a “privatized air traffic control” fee to tickets.

  9. As my pops who is a retired ATC at one of the busiest airports in the country says about all this: “The bottlenecks just move to the airports.” Trump better plan on building some more runways too.

    Haven’t seen a single article mention the runways at all.

  10. Caveat–to appreciate what will be in play when privatizing ATC, benchmark with the rationale for and history of Amtrak-created by and orphaned by the federal government.

    When the Penn Central went bankrupt in 1970, but two years after its creation, it crippled rail service throughout the Northeast. Given how the dynamics of such a significant economic hit could metastasize to impact the remaining railroads, the federal government and railroad industry were concerned over the real potential for nationalizing the railroads. The first step to avert this calamity (pushed by the industry) was for the federal government to offload the passenger services–and debts–from the railroads; ironically, such costs accrued over years of excessive regulations and taxes, while competing against a federal bias that fully funded the infrastructure for competitive modes of transportation, i.e., air, highway, inland barges..

    Although Congress structured Amtrak to become operational in 1971 as a “for profit” quasi-public entity, Congress failed to ensure any potential for Amtrak to be successful in a growing competitive marketplace. Congress denied Amtrak multi-year funding authorization to facilitate its budgeting, planning, and equipment acquisition/modernization programs to rehabilitate and expand routes and services. Instead, Amtrak became a financial outlier–and political target of think tanks–falling into the annual congressional budgetary hearings. Unlike other modes, Amtrak was not provided by Congress a dedicated fund, e.g., air and highway. Also, Congress prevented Amtrak from having a dedicated ticket tax; or, even to receive 1¢ from every dollar budgeted.

    In the regulatory area, Congress failed to protect Amtrak’s operational relationship with the Class 1 freight railroads, whose right-of-way Amtrak depended upon beyond the Northeast Corridor. As the Class 1s successfully merged and eliminated redundant mainlines through the benefit of being de-regulated, they acquired a market savvy to build upon new services, e.g., intermodal. Per agreement, Amtrak paid user fees to these railroads to access their privately-owned infrastructure, with the clear understanding of receiving priority dispatching. However, as rail traffic increased across the reduced lanes shared with Amtrak, the freight railroads determined they were underpaid for the revised value of track access and slots for dispatching. Consequently, freight was designated the priority for dispatchers, at the expense of the on-time performance of passenger trains. Despite paying increased user fees and (questionable) performance bonuses, on top of excessive schedule padding, Amtrak schedule reliability was stabbed, destroying the raisin d’être for Amtrak as a competitive mode. As well, any idea of increasing Amtrak frequencies, let alone expansion of new routes, was met with restrictions and high financial demands for any such increased services.

    As a creation of Congress, Amtrak naturally found its comfort zone on the Potomac, serving the Northeastern political power bloc, at the expense of the national network system. In 1976, the Northeastern politicians secured and foisted upon Amtrak the Northeast Corridor, but without the requisite continuous funding to repair and maintain the deferred infrastructure. However, the clout of the Northeast politicians positioned influential denizens of the Northeast as a majority on Amtrak’s Board of Directors to do their bidding. In turn, they brought on their chums as CEOs from the Northeast without any railroad experience, but with the political ability to divert funds from the national network to support the prized Northeast Corridor. As well, this Board through its politicized CEOs devised a congressional mandate in 2008 that required all state train services under 750 miles to pay according to Amtrak own cost methodology. That is, all but the Northeast Corridor (less than 450 miles between Boston-New York-Washington). The same congressional mandate, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, also required commuter lines using the Northeast Corridor to pay for such operations; yet, Amtrak never pushed to collect payments until ordered by Congress–in December, 2015.

    Today, Amtrak’s long distance services languish at risk of being de-funded for political purposes, despite the fact how these routes directly serve rural and “flyover” towns, linking them to cities across the country; how the average passenger miles traveled at 800 is now equivalent to the airlines.

    Indeed, when it comes to ATC, their is much to learn from how Amtrak was envisioned, promised to the public; yet, allowed to wilt away; consuming all funds to support the prized Northeast Corridor in keeping with the influential politics of but one region over the rest of the nation.

  11. Privatized ATC is no where near the panacea it is made out to be. Delays from weather won’t be fixed by the privatization wand.

    A thunderstorm on top of an airport makes it unsafe to land planes (this price has been paid in blood). Clouds and fog require instrument approaches that a private ATC operator can’t speed up:. Instead local land use needs to change to build more runways rather than take them away.

    The media has thrown around snippets about using GPS with privatized ATC instead of “radar,” but that’s just wrong:
    1. GPS is already in widespread use for navigation. Alaska Airlines has been using it to improve dispatch rates to Alaskan airports with considerable success.
    2. The 2020 deadline for ADS-B (GPS-based transponder output) is getting pushback from the major airlines of all places.

    As unexpected as it is to say, the regulatory regime of the FAA is remarkably light and competent. Almost every major European carrier sends it’s would-be pilots to the United States of America to learn to fly and receive their training. There’s a reason they aren’t turning out pilots in the heavily taxes and regulated (but gloriously privatized) European aviation systems.

  12. Keep in mind “non-profit” is just an IRS designation. It doesn’t mean they won’t/can’t generate massive fees espicislly since the airlines will indirectly control them through board seats. The NFL was a non-profit until last year anyways. Look up the salary of the director of your local blood bank… I don’t see how ultimately this improves anything.

    Heck look at all the parallel discussions about folks WANTING the FAA to step in and regulate seat pitch right now (which I agree won’t happen).

    This seems like a classic baby w/bath water issue. Why not try and fix things like ground stops preventing a plane from taking off because the destination airport that is 3 hours away has a thunderstorm band the provides heavy rain which would be clear well before arrival. That goes to runway space which does seem like an issue. God help us when we have flying cars. Will the private ATC operate like the red-light camera companies we all love?

  13. I’d like to comment about M.E. Singer’s article about Amtrak. The real reason that passenger train service in the USA doesn’t hold a candle to the superior passenger train service in Western Europe, Japan, and China, is because the federal government has subsidized the airlines (directly and indirectly), to the detriment of the passenger railroads. There is not one high speed passenger train in the USA; on the other hand, Japan, China and France have enjoyed such service for decades. Even the passenger trains which are not high speed are clearly deficient, both in equipment, as well as the state of their maintenance. It is quite possible that the airline industry, behind the scenes had a role in the demise of passenger train service in the USA.

  14. 1. It’s not Trumps plan, it’s off-the-shelf legislation that has been proposed before.
    2. The Amtrak example above is spot on. USPS is also a good example. Independent, but only in the bad way. The government (congress) cripples them and then is happy that because since they are “independent” they get all the blame.

  15. And some text from some ATC friends (for the record, I have extensive knowledge and study in aviation sector.)

    A very good look at the Air Traffic Control debate. Like with most things with this administration he believes the private sector can wave it’s magic wand and make everything great again. Thank you Kyle Szary for posting this. Hope you don’t mind the copy and paste. Currently in congress there is a debate on whether privatizing Air Traffic Control would be detrimental to aviation safety. Advocates of privatization argue that privately run control towers cost less to operate, are equally as safe as FAA-run facilities, and will increase the speed of modernization of equipment. Opponents of privatization point to examples of other countries that have privately run ATC facilities (like Great Britain, Australia and Canada) and the massive problems they have encountered. In theory and on paper the arguments for privatization may be valid but when put into real world use, they fail miserably.
    ATC privatization is significantly different than typical privatizations. Typical proposals to privatize public services involve specifying the service to be privatized and putting out a competitive request for bids for the contract. The service is then turned over to the lowest bidder. The theory that there are alternative suppliers is sufficient motivation for the contractor to perform to the agency’s specifications. But many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of their flight safety being managed by a company that won the job by submitting the lowest bid.
    ATC privatization differs from typical privatization proposals in two essential ways. First, it cannot be completely handed over to a private company since the FAA has to retain a powerful supervisory role to maintain public safety and security. Secondly, it cannot be competitively bid on. ATC is not a service subject to the discipline of a competitive, capitalist market place. There are no available private sector providers listed in a phone book ready, willing and able to sell a national ATC system at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, the government could not create a competitive market for ATC service even if it wanted to. ATC is what economists characterize as a “natural monopoly.” Natural monopolies are situations in which, because of the large scale of operation and the high fixed costs in infrastructure, it is less expensive to have a single regulated provider. It would be inefficient to duplicate the costly advanced technology that modern ATC demands among many providers who would then compete to sell it to the government.
    Still ATC privatization is a highly debated topic in congress, split between party lines. The Bush administration and the rest of the republicans in congress are in favor of privatization, while democrats are adamantly opposed to it. Of the three main arguments for privatized ATC services, one needs to only look at the examples from other countries to see how these arguments are inaccurate .
    Probably some of the biggest arguments for privatization are that contracted facilities will be cheaper to run than FAA facilities and they are equally, if not more, as safe as government-run facilities. While it may be true that privately run facilities have been successful at reducing totals costs, it is the “at what price?” question that is rarely asked. The price is safety and employee satisfaction. It is risky in terms of public safety to have private operators each responding to their own internal profit margins, acting by their own operational protocols moving air traffic through the national air space. Also, it is likely that the current 24-hour service at many facilities would be reduced to cut costs, limiting the flexibility of commercial users. NAV Canada, Canada’s private ATC provider, has been successful at keeping costs low by negotiating with controllers to keep flexible schedules. As a result, fewer controllers need to be hired and labor costs are kept low, but controllers in Canada are stretched to the point of being unable to perform their jobs. Since NAV Canada took over operations in 1998, they have an aircraft incident rate twice that as America with a system 7% the size of America. NAV Canada suffers from inefficiencies, inadequate staffing and huge financial losses. In August, the fees that airlines and ultimately passengers pay for air traffic control services in Canada went up 7 percent to cover NAV Canada’s $22 million debt. The Edmonton Journal described NAV Canada as “financially ravaged.” In Great Britain, near-misses have increased by 50 percent, and delays have grown enormously since their ATC system was privatized. In addition, the privatized system has been a financial disaster, requiring a bailout in March 2003 of more than $200 million from their government and airlines. And in Australia, cost saving work rules have so infuriated controllers that a series of strikes have crippled air traffic movement for hours at a time at a high cost to Australians as a whole.
    Another claim of privatization advocates is that private ATC companies would provide modern technology and would be innovative and speedy adapters of new technology. The Canadian, Australian and British cases all demonstrate that this is not the truth. In Canada, technological innovation has consisted of waiting for the U.S. to develop new technology and then importing it. The Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS) has led to several technological failures, including a twelve-minute radar blackout. In the United Kingdom, introduction of new software has caused severe disruptions and system shutdowns. Controllers in a new London area facility have been unable to make out the call numbers of planes on their new screens, which is a major safety hazard. Major inefficiency and safety hazards associated with private implementation of new technology are demonstrated through international cases. They clearly dispute the argument that privatization brings better technology quicker and it demonstrates a substantial risk of technological failure.
    America’s air traffic control system is the best in the world. It is staffed by highly trained professionals employed by the FAA. Their #1 priority is always safety. There is no private contractor trying to pinch pennies by cutting staffing. Government controllers are answerable to the public, not to investors or accountants. The United States now has the safest, most efficient air traffic control system in the world. Controllers guide more than one million passengers safely every day. It is beyond comprehension why the White House would want to risk this high standard of safety, especially considering the dismal record of air traffic control privatization in other countries. Now more than ever, the American public expects the federal government to protect our safety, not to put it up for sale.

  16. NavCanada is the second largest ANSP in the world. It has a cost advantage over the US which is crazy, our larger system should have greater efficiencies, if only from more flights to spread fixed costs across. NavCanada also handles the bulk of transatlantic.

    “American’s air traffic control system is the best in the world” is simply false given the outdated technology we’re using, and the failure to adhere to ICAO best safety practices.

    As soon as you hear aspersions about ‘profit’ you know you’re reading disingenuous argument since the proposal is to spin off into a non-profit.

  17. Gary: is there any evidence that could persaude you that privatized ATC would be worse?

    You’ve mentioned “outdated technology” but can you be more specific? GPS is already in usein the Us aviation system. The ADS-B mandate will be missed by the airlines, not the FAA. Radar will continue to have a purpose:. Look no further than the 9/11 hijackers turning off their transponders.

  18. The current privatized Canadian system is costing $2.15 per mile compared to the regulated US cost of $2.07 per mile. Additionally, in Canada that cost is passed on to the passenger.

    Not sure privatization will solve the issues or not.

  19. IFR movements per controller at NavCanada are double that of the FAA, because they use better tech. (By the way, they’re doing this in the same amount of time not working longer hours.)

    NavCanada’s cost per IFR movement was $84 in 2012 — vs. the FAA at $287 (and rising). By the way Canada just announced a reduction in fees.

    Let’s look at cost per flight hour, in 2012 Nav Canada’s was @285 — vs. $436 at the FAA.

    And since there are economies of scale in ATC a similar org structure to NavCanada should generate even more benefits for the U.S.

  20. @Gary Leff

    We can pick and choose which metrics we want to use to support our case. Take comparing the safety of cars vs commercial flying. Comparing fatalities per mile, fatalities per hour, and fatalities per operation will yield wildly different results.

    You can increase the number of movements per controller in less complex airspace. For the sake of it, if we gerrymander a sector such that it contains only aircraft flying in a straight line, a single controller can work a lot of flights.

    I don’t care what numbers you trot out, when I look at the volume of flights and operational philosophy of Canada and Europe, we just can’t draw conclusions about the impacts it would have on the US.

    Remember, we can always increase on time performance by padding schedules.

  21. @Dan NavCanada is the second largest in the world. Scale isn’t an issue, except that it should generate additional cost savings. Remember we’re not building an air traffic system from scratch. There’s absolutely no question that NavCanada is more efficient and getting better while the US system is getting more costly and has largely stalled on improvements.

  22. @Gary

    No question based on what evidence? Again, I’ll submit that one can pick and choose which metrics they want to use to defend their (and refute others’) case… which sorta refutes your argument that “there’s absolutely no question”, doesn’t it?

    Based on an DOT OIG report using 2011/2012 data, it says that FAA handles 15.5 million IFR movements compared to NavCanada’s 3.8 million. There’s significant density and complexity issues the US has that Canada doesn’t — YYZ doesn’t hold a candle to ORD and ATL in terms of operation counts. Additionally, consider that the US has 209k GA aircraft to Canada’s 35.5k. GA operates a much different model than the commercial air carriers do, adding to complexity.

    Scale may or may not introduce cost savings; it depends on the complexities.

    We can go at this all day — your statement is “there is absolutely no question” when there is, in fact, a question.

    Second, how do you even begin to back up the statement that NavCanada is getting better, while the FAA has largely stalled? It seems to me that is so subjective that it becomes difficult to defend with objective evidence.

  23. Without regard to whether one supports Trump on any other issue, on privatizing ATC he is 100% correct – full stop. The USA has fallen way behind with its antiquated government run system, and we only have to look across our norther border to see how it can be done in a manner which benefits everybody, is innovative (we can thank NavCanada for nonstop flights to most of Asia from North America), and doesn’t require massive government subsidies or create opportunities for cronyism or graft.

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