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What Would Privatizing Air Traffic Control Mean For Southwestern PA?

A plane with Pittsburgh Steelers colors at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Last week, President Donald Trump proposed privatizing air traffic control, separating it from the Federal Aviation Administration and putting it under the control of a notprofit corporation. The administration argued doing so would cut costs and help modernize the system.

It’s an old idea. U.S. airlines have been in favor of privatizing since the 1980s; President Bill Clinton thought it could work; Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and a whole slew of other countries have made the leap. The president’s proposal closely resembles legislation championed last year by Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

All air traffic controllers are certified by the FAA, but how they’re employed varies from airport to airport. In southwestern Pennsylvania, and across the state, there’s a mix of FAA-staffed towers and contract towers

One of those is at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, part of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority. The changes proposed by the president probably wouldn’t affect the operations there, said Gabe Monzo, the authority’s executive director.

“We’re in good shape with where we’re at,” he said. “If other airports did it, you know, I think it’s just a matter of how they’re going about getting their work done.”

Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president of global operations for the American Association of Airport Executives, said he worries that without close congressional oversight, some airports will be overlooked. 

“The airlines will not have the same focus on rural America, smaller airports...that the federal government does,” he said.

In particular, Dickerson worries that the proposed corporation’s 13-member board would be dominated by airline executives, who would see maintaining subsidies and service to small, rural airports as a place to cut costs.

“Our national air transportation system is just that, it’s a national air transportation system,” he said. “It should be open on an equitable, fair basis, to all Americans, across all states: rural America and major metropolitan areas.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, or NATCA, represents about 14,000 FAA air traffic controllers and 6,000 other employees in related positions. The organization supported Shuster’s legislation in 2016 because it provided for stable funding, said NATCA spokesperson Doug Church.

“Stop and go funding...makes it very difficult for the FAA to do any kind of long-term planning,” he said. “That is a major concern of ours, and why we’re open to hearing a new proposal for how to structure funding.”

Government shutdowns and other vagaries of the federal appropriations process has made it difficult to move forward with building NextGen, which would move U.S. air traffic control from a radar-based to a satellite-based system. The transition has been in progress for years, and cost billions of dollars, a point used to press for privatization.

NATCA is not supporting any current proposals, said Church.

“We’re waiting to see what the specific details of any new legislation is,” he said. “The key for us is it’s going to have to be seamless.”

Dickerson likened making the transition to “changing a tire on a moving car.”

Both Dickerson and Church stressed just how safe the U.S. air traffic control system is. 

House Democrats have introduced a counter-proposal to the president’s.

(Photo via James Willamor / Flickr)