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Privatizing Air Traffic Control

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Hard to see what could go wrong with the next target of Republican privatization schemes:

The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act is intended to prevent an interruption in federal aviation funding next month. It would extend the FAA’s funding until 2022, but the measure would also create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the agency in approximately three years.

The FAA bill is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation left on the congressional agenda this year. As such, it also represents an opportunity for lawmakers looking for a vehicle on which to attach pet issues.

Supporters of the bill said separating air traffic control from the FAA would modernize the nation’s aviation system and bring it on par with countries such as Canada that have already set up independent flight navigation systems.

“The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation. We have the safest system in the world, and we will continue to do so under this bill,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the transportation committee. “But our system is incredibly inefficient, and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system.”

Of course, Congressional Republicans could fund that modernized system but then that wouldn’t accomplish their goal of turning public goods private, even if that ends up costing more for taxpayers, as Democrats claim, likely correctly.

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  • Srsly Dad Y

    Is anyone familiar with the Canadian system? I litigate government contracts and would think that drafting and awarding a workable contract to outsource ATC for a whole country would be a nightmare. Maybe not tho.

    • ckc_not_kc

      Check it out here (NavCanada is what it’s called)

  • Nobdy

    You completely gloss over the many benefits of having COMPETITION.

    You could allow various companies to enter the air traffic control market, bidding against one another to bring down the price. You could even offshore the work, allowing us to tap into a market of Indian air traffic controllers every bit as highly trained and compensated as the customer service representatives from that country.

    What happens if a company has less than stringent standards (trying to control costs so they can offer the lowest bid for services) and a couple airliners go down? Presumably the market will punish them and the other companies will take their business.

    It’s efficient, it WILL reduce prices, and the worst possible outcome is a couple airliners collide with each other over a major metropolitan area.

    But liberals like you think we should be willing to PAY HIGHER COSTS just to prevent a couple mid-air plane collisions. Disgusting. How do you even live with yourself?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      English already is the lingua franca of aviation, and we all know lots of people in India speak English, so this would work out fine!

      • Some of the foreign controllers have pretty limited English skills.

        Especially in South America. Some of them understand very little beyond the standard “canned” phrases like “clear to land”.

    • Kathleen

      Also, too – Robots!

    • los

      “the market will punish them and the other companies”
      .. will join in buying legislation to indemnify them all (they’re all the same people on the corporate boards)

    • los

      collisions…
      Current glibertarian logic dogma blames the outcomes of weakened deregulation on regulation, “if only the defunded agencies would enforce existing laws we deliberately loaded with horrifying redtape and delays!”

  • CrunchyFrog

    “After extremely careful review, consideration, and deliberation, we have reached a decision: NATCA supports this bill,” the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.

    What is it with American air traffic control unions and making really, really dumb decisions that backfire on their employees?

    I have no idea how the Canadian system works, but one key difference is that Canadians actually have employee protections built into their legal systems. Without those there is simply no doubt that safety standards will be compromised in the name of increasing shareholder profits (actually, profits for the insiders on the board and the top execs, but we’ll pretend it’s for the shareholders).

    And this assumption that somehow a big bureaucratic company will automatically be more efficient than the big bureaucratic government is stunning – has anyone advocating this actually spent time seeing how megacorporations operate inside? The red tape at a place like IBM or GM is as bad as the government’s.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      And this assumption that somehow a big bureaucratic company will automatically be more efficient than the big bureaucratic government is stunning – has anyone advocating this actually spent time seeing how megacorporations operate inside? The red tape at a place like IBM or GM is as bad as the government’s.

      The rubes they’re pandering too have a blind spot on this, as do the panderers. They just hate the public sector. The private sector can do no wrong.

      Note, no executive in the FAA has a ski chalet in Aspen and a beach house and a condo in Manhattan, or a private jet to zip around between them all. That, to these kinds of people, is the real crime. Things are getting done without a white man in a suit wielding a lot of power and carting off wheelbarrows full of loot. Actual speed or efficiency or lower costs is never their real concern, it’s that entire ecosystems of the public sector operate without fuckers like these getting to siphon off the rents they deserve.

      • los

        corollaries:
        “government employees do no work” (or “produce nothing”)
        “only rich people create jobs”

    • Morse Code for J

      I’m an air traffic controller at a large East Coast en route facility, i.e., not a tower.

      The language of the bill passes along every protection and privilege we currently enjoy as federal employees. The new non-profit, non-governmental corporation (we are apparently modeled organizationally on the American Red Cross) must bargain with us under Chapter 71 of Title 5, and where we reach impasse, the corporation must seek mediation services from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, with binding arbitration if that fails. Current FAA employees would be allowed to continue making deposits in federal retirement systems and to participate in federal employee health benefit programs. The corporation has to indemnify us totally for acts within the scope of our employment, and has to observe whistleblower statutes written for federal employees.

      We have to be nice about it in their press releases, because the committee Republicans have done a lot to accommodate us. But we’re here because of how dysfunctional Congress is. The building where I work is 50+ years old, like most en route centers, and there is no credible plan to fund repairing or replacing them. There are legacy ATC radar systems operating in Alaska, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico that are nearing the end of their useful life with replacements cancelled or delayed because of funding. Meanwhile, we are competing with NavCanada and others to roll out new technologies for oceanic en route control first, with the possibility that we will lose airspace and user fees to foreign competitors.

      Since 2007, we have had almost thirty short-term extensions of our funding as Congress fights over things with no relevance to the National Airspace System. If we can walk away with everything we currently have as federal employees and not wait for Congress to authorize collecting revenue to fund the operation, it will be at least that much more efficient in how it allocates resources.

      • Thanks for the insider perspective

        • Morse Code for J

          It also needs to be said that the union’s support is conditioned on the final bill meeting our principles – fairness to current and future employees, the private entity not operating for profit, all stakeholders in the ATC system being recognized equally, etc. If the language were to change meaningfully between now and the President’s desk, we might not support it in the end.

      • Which center do you work?

        • Morse Code for J

          Washington.

      • manual

        This is the correct read of the employee language in the bill, which was fashioned, effectively, to meet NATCA’s concerns.

        That said, my bigger concern is the long-term problems. The board of the non-profit corporations is made up of the 4 large airlines, 2 general aviation members, 2 labor employees, and 1 member nominated by the Secretary of Transportation (who knows who the president will be). In effect, the union will be negotiating with the airlines, rather than the federal government. While the feds may be strapped for cash, the airlines have a terrible track record with employee negotiations and can see them, in a less healthy aviation economic environment, seeking concessionary requests. While the labor language is quite strong, I think negotiating with the Feds is probably a much safer long-term enterprise.

        Additionally, I think this creates a very dangerous means or privatizing other elements of the federal government.

        Finally, it would be much easier to simply move this off budget so that it cannot be subject to sequestration or other vicissitudes of federal spending while retaining the FAA as the employer.

        • patrick II

          And I can’t help but add the obvious — that this is yet one more example of Republicans destroying government functions by under funding them and then privatizing because the federal government is so “inefficient.”

        • Morse Code for J

          In 2006, the federal government imposed its “last best offer” on the ATC bargaining unit due to an ambiguity in Title 49 that we later fixed, instead of entering binding arbitration as in Title 5. Among other things, it reduced the floor of the ATC pay bands by $20,000+ in an effort to create a B scale. This was the product of a Republican White House aided and abetted by a Republican Congress. If privatization is inevitable, I would rather that the House (apparently to remain Republican indefinitely) not write a bill with the intent of passing it through a Republican Senate to a Republican President, because it could be much worse than this draft.

          I agree that it sets an awful precedent, and that rendering us immune to sequestration or debt ceiling fights would solve almost all of our problems. But it’s only “easier” in the sense that a sane and reasonable Congress would do it immediately, which doesn’t describe the majority of the majority in the House.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        The building where I work is 50+ years old, like most en route centers, and there is no credible plan to fund repairing or replacing them. There are legacy ATC radar systems operating in Alaska, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico that are nearing the end of their useful life with replacements cancelled or delayed because of funding. Meanwhile, we are competing with NavCanada and others to roll out new technologies for oceanic en route control first, with the possibility that we will lose airspace and user fees to foreign competitors.

        I fear Matthew Yglesias is about to burst in the door with some glib tweet about infrastructur spending in 3, 2, 1…

        What really irks me is that we let this kind of stuff wither on the vine, and then when we wind up second rate, the hoopleheads and screwheads and the doomed in the Ungovernable Tribal Regions blame libruhls and elitists and furriners and anybody who doesn’t support Donald Trump punching foreign diplomats in the face.

  • Captain Oblivious

    I await Kong’s thoughts on this, but from what I know, the “inefficiencies” in the current system have less to do with ATC than with airport capacities and airline scheduling practices.

    • In general I’m against it, but we do have some number of control towers that are already run by private contractors.

    • DrDick

      Also, as Morse Code for J and others have pointed out, the consistent progressive underfunding of the air traffic safety system.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    “The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation. We have the safest system in the world, but now we feel compelled to fuck with it.”

    • Ken

      I see I’m not the only one who read his lead-in that way.

    • Moondog

      He’d cause a national crisis if he said anything other than “safest.” And I expect the tea party will primary him for it.

  • wca

    This is a conspiracy to generate more content for Mayday.

  • RobertL

    They knew the risks! I say, “let them die!”

    • Ahuitzotl

      do it for the Zipper

  • Warren Terra

    Obviously the profit potential for free-market ATC is amazing. Once you’ve got that plane up in the air, you’re in a tremendous bargaining position: what won’t they eventually pay to be permitted to land?

    I mean, wasn’t (admittedly somewhat impromptu) privatization of air traffic control a big part of the plot of Die Hard 2?

    • sibusisodan

      Once you’ve got that plane up in the air, you’re in a tremendous bargaining position

      “Look, all I want to do is land my plane. We’ve already re-enacted the highlights of Airplane! four times for you guys…no, I don’t care that you picked the wrong week to give it up, and that’s not my name!”

      • Lucky. They made us reenact “Snakes on a Plane” before they let us land.

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