March 3, 2021

The American Air Traffic Services Corporation - What’s in a name?

After months and months of listening to the arguments of those for and against the privatisation of Air Traffic Control(ATC) in the US, the 27th June 2017 saw the U.S. House andTransportation and Infrastructure Committee approve a comprehensive FAA reauthorisation package that includes the detail of the much-discussed proposal.


In order to contribute to an objective debate on this critical issue, I think it’s important to avoid any emotive language in the discussions. From reading the proposal, it is not seeking to privatise air traffic control, but instead create a federally chartered nonprofit corporationto run the country’s ATC system. The proposal is not contemplating outsourcing or selling the organisation to a private, profit focused company; although itwill maintain responsibility for the Contract Tower programme. Therefore, corporatisation is a more appropriate description than privatisation.


I’ve argued for some time that the debate up until now has been too one dimensional; public v private = good v bad. The"privatisation" label is a distraction, when we should be talking about the best way to transform US air traffic service provision for the benefit of all users. Hopefully we can now leave that diversion aside, and concentrate on the actual proposal.

Separation of service provision and regulation is a globally accepted principle in all safety critical sectors, to remove conflicts of interest and ensure there is a properly focused delivery organisation, subject to appropriate oversight.


At a time when traffic continues to grow, thecapabilities of new technology must be fully exploited, in order to accommodatethe rapidly changing operating environment, including the potential integrationof remotely piloted vehicles. Decision support tools, capacity managementsystems, improved data displays, and in-built safety nets all allow additionaltraffic to be handled by controllers. This requires investment, with associatedlong term planning and financing, which is impossible to achieve if, as upuntil recently, the FAA Air Traffic Organisation responsible has had to rely onan average of five temporary funding bills a year from central government.

The envisaged Corporation should be able tofocus solely on these issues, without distraction, as opposed to the currentsituation, where in addition to the staggered funding issue, air trafficcontrol is just one in a myriad of aviation related matters being dealt with bythe Federal Government. For example, H.R.2997 – the 21st Century AviationInnovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act which outlined theseproposals, also dealt with the requirements for the provision of discretelocations at airports for breastfeeding, and the protection of preferentialemployment rights for American Indians at an airport located on an Indianreservation.


Whilst these are allvery important issues, each with differing stakeholders who need to besatisfied, it simply serves to demonstrate the need to free the current FAA AirTraffic Organisation to focus on its stakeholders, current and future airspaceusers.

The proposal also finally provides considerable detail about how the neworganisation will be managed by a Board led by a CEO, and comprising directors representingthe following areas; government, airlines, cargo carriers, regional airlines,general aviation, business aviation, air traffic controllers, pilots, andairports. The proposal also goes into a lot of detail on the composition ofnomination panels to identify the directors from each area. In addition, thedocument also contemplates the creation of an Advisory Board, consisting of“not more than fifteen” members, representing in addition to those stakeholdersnamed above, operators and manufacturers of commercial unmanned aircraft systems,appropriate labor organisations, the Department of Defense and smallcommunities.


Whilst it is admirablethat attempts are being made to ease concerns about particular sectors having toomuch sway over the decisions of the Corporation, I fear that the proposedstructure may result in no decisions being taken at all. Having lived andworked in the Middle East for over fifteen years, I’m reminded of theobservation that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.


An area of theproposal where I would like to see more detail instead of less, is with respectto the arrangements for the important safety and economic oversight of the newCorporation. A strong delivery organisation will potentially be a huge benefitto the United States, its aviation sector and the wider economy. However, thispotential will only be achieved with a complementary regulator, appropriatelyand transparently funded, and with the skills and capabilities to challenge andsupport the provider where appropriate.

The FAA considered this issue three years ago when itcommissioned The Mitre Corporation to investigate how six countries hadseparated its Air Navigation Service Provider from the relevant Civil AviationAuthority, with particular focus on the experience of the new Regulator. Thereport “CAA InternationalStructures” addressed the “governance, autonomy, structure, and fundingof each CAA” to identify lessons learnt, so the Administration should alreadyhave a grasp of the issues.


Considering the FAA’s current authority expires at the end ofSeptember, time is tight for the appropriate, intelligent debate to take placeon the management of the country’s invisible, but critical nationalinfrastructure.


I’d love to hear your views.

John Swift has had a 28 year career in aviation, as a former airtraffic controller, and leader of teams and facilities through periods ofsignificant traffic growth and major technology and process changes. He hasworked in public, private and corporatised ANSPs before setting up his ownindependent advisory firm, supporting organisations to improve operationalefficiency and grow their businesses. An Irishman living in Spain, he makes noapologies for only one letter “z” being used in the entire article!

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