Aircraft Accidents and Privatization

The most important part of writing aviation articles, particularly mine, is that the positions stated are MY opinion.  While airing my views may appear to lean toward one side of the Congressional aisle, I try to keep my politics neutral; believe me, in today’s world, that’s hard.  But, sometimes a topic of national interest comes up and I must comment, so please don’t put a political spin on it

Big news last week: The President supports privatization of the air traffic control system.  Apparently, this is something that we’ve been asking for, though I never got the Memo.  Now I was an aircraft mechanic for many years and years before that I loaded aircraft; my experience with airports – indeed, air traffic control – is limited to travelling from ramp to ramp or taxiing a DC-10 to the high-power pad; in other words: limited.  My feelings on the topic of Air Traffic Privatization are restricted to my memories of commercial aviation history; working both on the government side and the industry side of aviation; or being union and being non-union.  That being said, I can’t say I’m happy; it reminds me of the Fellowship of the Ring line, “… for none now live that remember it.” And by ‘it’, I mean the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981.

The problem with our society is that we too soon forget the lessons of the past, even lessons learned by the previous generation.  Think how soon it was before we thought of 9/11 as history.  It was only sixteen years ago: a lifetime to many, but a turn of the page to many my age.  To people like me, who helped during the recovery at Shanksville, PA, the memories are vivid, the horror: stark, as those witnessing, e.g. Pearl Harbor.  So why would non-aviation people remember the PATCO strike from 36 years ago or even what it was about?

In August, 1981, PATCO struck for better working conditions and pay raises.  President Ronald Reagan demanded that the strikers – who were breaking the law – should return to work within 48 hours or they would be terminated.  With the military running air traffic, the 48-hour deadline came about and, true to his word, Reagan dismissed those who did not return to work.

Whether one agrees with President Reagan’s actions or not, those arguments are now moot; the striking controllers posed a very real threat to the nation’s safety and commerce.  As one who spent his professional life in aviation, it is my opinion, the President’s actions were valid.

It is important to note that thirty-six years later, a similar loss of our air traffic controllers would devastate this nation.

The strike and resulting disorganization of PATCO was, according to labor historian Joseph McCartin, “one of the most important events in late twentieth century labor history.”  I don’t presume to suggest that, if privatized, the air traffic controllers will strike, though the possibility greatly exists for any private company to organize.  When one takes that private entity, stretches its control across the fifty states and various territories, the chances for unionization increase; elect a Democratic majority and that opportunity rises exponentially.

What I fear is a private organization that holds the country’s very financial existence in its hands: it’s too much power to be trusted … to anyone.  Corporations, or any business organization, exists for one reason: to make money.  Whether selling a Big Mac sandwich (Product) or seats on a flight (Service), a business uses these products and services to make financial gains for its investors … period.  Government doesn’t have that luxury; their money-making apparatus is taxes; they offer no products or services worth buying.  That’s why they are so incompetent when it comes to entitlements and the Department of Motor Vehicles – it’s not their job.

Make no mistake, EVERYTHING is affected by air transportation.  And such an organization, not beholding to government authority, by conducting ‘sick outs’ or strikes, can cripple travel around the world, not just in the United States.  The travel industry: passenger, air cargo or anything that flies, e.g. air ambulances or fire fighters, could be subject to tremendous delays that would take days or weeks to resolve; add in the damage or loss to persons and/or property, a strike would be catastrophic.  If the air traffic control system falls under one company, the US runs the risk of creating a monopoly, much like Ma Bell was pre-1984; I’m afraid the Ma Bell monopoly is ancient history to some of our decision makers, as well.

And here is where government control should shine.  It’s true, government can’t get out of its own way, but they are the best non-partisan entity to keep the battle lines from forming.  Government is, for the most part, supposed to be unbiased.  It is not above corruption, but it doesn’t benefit from investing in private industry.  For example, in government work for the aviation industry, an investigator or inspector like I was, must divest themselves of any air operator’s business holdings or the government employee’s integrity can come into question, even if they are the most incorruptible individual.  An airline, however – quietly investing through shadow companies, trusts or charitable organizations in the air traffic management company – can use their financial influence to sway, e.g. routes or landing windows, to their own favor.

Some may argue that private industry might inject energy into the long delayed NextGen system.  Many sharing the ‘NextGen is taking too long’ mantra, may not fully understand the ramifications of turning the air traffic system over to the machines without a proper shakedown.  Government’s not dragging its feet; rather technology is getting in its own way.  Private industry is heavily involved with NextGen’s introduction and evolution; government, despite public opinion, cannot move the technology ball forward on its own; there are no secret labs or FAA scientists (that’s an oxymoron) housed in underground research facilities.  Private industry and entrepreneurs are a strong influence on NextGen’s progress.

Technology is not the only reason to question the wisdom of turning the air traffic control system over to private management; I alluded to corruption.  If Airline X, a major international airline, makes substantial investments to the air traffic control company – even as a shadow organization – this would give Airline X an incredible advantage over Airlines Y and Z, smaller commuter airlines.  Airline X could leverage their unfair advantage, driving Airlines Y and Z out of business as they maneuver their way into the smaller airlines’ markets.  This is not Capitalism, but the aviation equivalent of Insider Trading.

How would a private company enforce the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR)?  As an unbiased entity, the FAA has the ability to play Policeman.  How would a private company regulate the air traffic system?  They lack the ability to enforce any FAR, e.g. breaking altitude.  Would they be able to use equal measures to enforce FARs fairly?  Would these air traffic controllers be party to aircraft accident investigations?

The last point is transition; that turning control of the air traffic system over to privatization doesn’t come with the flick of a switch; it is a costly and time-intensive process full of changing regulations, reorganization, transfers of authority, negotiations, paperwork changes and other important translations that are not easily satisfied.  Perhaps the answer is not to privatize the air traffic system, though that seems moot at this point.  Instead, the money – and it will cost a LOT – needed to convert from government to privatization, could be used to fix the system.

We all want things to work right.  We want satisfaction to promises made or authorities to finally get their collective act together.  But I feel that we must ask ourselves a question: What are we willing to sacrifice for satisfaction?  In the end, we might find that we should be careful what we ask for … we just might get it.

6 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Privatization”

    1. Thank you Jo. It will be interesting to look back upon this time, seven or so years from now, and see how Privatization played out.

  1. Another great article. You brought up some good points as well that everyone should take heed too. My opinion in this topic of government organizations to privatization are somewhat mixed. I remember when the Air Traffic Controllers were fired and how the military handled that load as well as, contractual people who were hired to also fill in those positions. This is an example of privatization and where the government unions went to far thus, hurting the organization not to mention the people who were displaced. The unions didn’t help them get a job. I’m not pro or non-pro union, but I am about supporting principles that help everyone. This greediness or sternness by the PATCO Union can be no different than another organization who can monopolize a system if privatization is a reality. There needs to be checks and balances that are overseen in a fair and unbiased way. Sometimes this is not the case. The people with “big” money will set the tone in some way. Look at what Bill Gates tries to do all the time because he has the money: (1) Help our school education system in creating a new math solving methods or the concept of charter schools. (2) Now he wants to improve our memories…. give me a break. Our school math solving methods have been effective so many years, so why change it? His involvement scares me because he has the big money to back him up. Your point on being politically correct is no different than “common sense is not so common anymore.” The government has allowed these changes to take place because they are losing their effectiveness too. The issuance of the Pilot Bill of Rights should have never been introduced had the Administrator stood strong against it and not bowed down to an incompetent pilot that forgot his basic piloting skills. So with government leaders doing what they are doing maybe privatization is the answer to gain ground and move ahead in aviation it’s certainly not in our current government structure.

    1. Thank you, Jose. You bring a new view to the topic, the military involvement in getting the air traffic system working again; without, e.g. the Air Force and Navy controllers, what would have happened? I’ve known people who lost their jobs because of the strike, so it was not a small event in any way; people who had worked as controllers for years, lost their retirement, jobs, health care, etc. It was a calculated risk and they chose incorrectly. I doubt the union higher-ups paid as costly a price. It seems odd that we could be heading down this road again.

  2. Well written article that I agreed with everything.

    One thing you didn’t touch on was the cost to the user of a private ATC system. Now, it’s paid for through fuel taxes. It’s hard to imagine those taxes decreasing, or going away entirely if a corporation was charging users to use the system. Who will enforce the corporation to charge all users equally. Like you, I feel there will be ample opportunities for the airline with the deepest pockets to get the service they want forcing competitors, or other users out of the airport they want to operate from.

    I’ve heard the analogy that a private ATC would be equivalent to giving the highways to the truckers. The small corporate aviation department, or private individual that uses their aircraft for travel may find the cost to fly certain areas, like New York, prohibitively expensive.

    Since users would pay for it, the costs to general aviation would be substantial. If a IFR flight would cost more than a VFR, we know frugal pilots would attempt to cut already expensive costs by scud running, and being less safe than if in today’s environment when they’d fly the flight IFR.

    What will a private ATC do to the cost of flight training, air ambulances, forest fire fighting, agriculture spraying, and the many other general aviation operations?

    I too feel privatizing ATC would be a bad idea.

    1. Dana,
      It’s interesting that aviation people of different specialties find more reasons to agree, than not. As a commercial pilot you, Dana, grasp other concerns that privatizing will bring about, none of them minor. I’ve found that taxpayers don’t worry about where the money goes as long as they don’t have to worry about it. In this case, we are not talking about trifling sums and trivial corruption opportunities; you raise points that, if privatization really happens, will stand the ATC system, and as a result, the aviation industry, on its head. It is one more major change that will be lost in the confusion; calling itself improvement and mislabeled as downsizing government.

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