Last week saw President Donald Trump announce plans to privatize the nation’s skies. Under his plan, some 30,000 workers from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would be taken off the government payroll and transferred to a private non-profit organization. Those impacted include administrative personnel, maintenance technicians and, most notably, more than 13,000 air traffic controllers.The idea isn’t entirely new. Efforts to privatize the skies date back to the Reagan Administration. President Clinton also tried to do so as did President George W. Bush. But their efforts proved fruitless. Trump is hoping for a different outcome.
The reasons for privatization are plentiful. Some argue that because the FAA is funded by Congress, it ends up serving political rather than public interests. Others contend that in addition to providing air traffic services, the FAA also provides oversight for those services. This creates an inherent conflict of interest. But ultimately, the reasons for privatization come down to technology. Here’s why.
Airplanes in the U.S. are guided by an elaborate set of ground-based navigation transmitters. These transmitters—also known as beacons—were set up during the mid 19th century and are spread across the country. Airplanes are guided from one beacon to another to help them get from one city to another.
This is done in two ways. First, by having air traffic controllers communicate with pilots using voice radio. And second, by monitoring the progress of each flight using ground-based radar. Both systems help controllers keep a watchful eye on the skies, ensuring that airplanes are kept safe distances apart.
But problems persist. For one thing, an airplane travelling from coast to coast will—owing to the current setup—end up zig zagging across the country. That’s because the beacons it follows won’t necessarily line up perfectly between the departure point and the arrival point. This ultimately amounts to delays.
Another issue is flight tracking. A controller monitors airplanes using ground-based radar systems. Signals from these systems are processed by computers and displayed as ‘blips’ on a controller’s screen. The problem? They’re inefficient and sometimes inaccurate thanks in part to their World War II-era design. “Automobile drivers with smartphones and mapping, traffic, and weather apps have access to more accurate real-time information than air- craft pilots receive from our ATC system,” Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, noted in a 2014 study.
And then there’s voice radio. Controller and pilots communicate with one another on a designated radio frequency. As the number of airplanes increase, so do the pilots listening in on that frequency. This increases the chances that one pilot may talk over another or worse yet, a pilot may be unaware about what was said and to whom.
There are solutions to all these problems.
For one thing, moving to satellite-based navigation would allow for more accurate tracking of larger numbers of airplanes. It would also allow these airplanes to fly directly from their departure point to the arrival city rather than zigzagging across the country. By one estimate, this could ultimately amount to between $6 and 8 billion in fuel savings.
Traditional voice communications could also be replaced by data-link. The airborne equivalent of text messaging, it involves having controllers and pilots communicate using computers. A controller who wants an airplane to climb, would type a message into the computer and upload that message to the airplane. The pilot would see it and start climbing accordingly. This ultimately means fewer chances of confusion over what was said and who said it.
The FAA knows all this. In fact, adopting such technologies was part of a 2003 initiative aimed at transforming the nation’s skies. The Next-Generation Air Transportation System—dubbed NextGen—has long been described by the FAA as a, “monumental, historic shift to modernize the U.S. air transportation system” achieved by integrating, “existing and new technologies like satellite navigation and advanced digital communications.”
At least that was the plan. However, according to a 2015 National Research Council study, “the original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today.” The study also found that, “NextGen, as currently executed, is not broadly transformational” and that, “not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future.” The U.S. Department of Transportation’s watchdog Office of Inspector General has voiced similar concerns. Critics charge they know why. They contend that government bureaucracy makes it hard to adopt new technologies. A non-governmental organization they argue, would be better positioned serve the flying public, more nimbly cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that has long hindered the FAA.
Privatization opponents—while disagreeing on the political and financial details of the effort—do agree that government bureaucracy is largely the reason that cutting-edge technology is not already in use by air traffic controllers and pilots. Trump is relying on that sentiment to see this policy though to fruition.