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Congress wants to privatize US air traffic control, but what does it mean for flyers?

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As part of the reauthorization for the FAA, Congressional Republicans are proposing a big change to the way America's air traffic control system works. Currently, a federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, oversees the air traffic control (ATC) of the nation — but HR 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act of 2016 has a provision that would spin off the air traffic control system into a separate, private, non-profit entity.

That's not as crazy as it sounds. Many countries have done something similar, including Canada and the United Kingdom.

The benefits, say House members who sponsored it, include removing ATC from the governmental budget process — instead, the country's control towers would be funded through user fees (that is, taxes tacked on to commercial airline tickets). A few years ago, during the government shutdown and sequester, ATC budgets were cut, causing delays throughout the system. Oh, and it'll move some 30,000 employees out of the government, which is a nice way for House Republicans to say they reduced the size of government.

it could provide a stable, predictable funding stream for ATC

The air traffic controller's union likes it too. NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement before Congress that the legislation, as written, addresses the union's "primary issues of concern." It ensures that air traffic controllers keep their union-negotiated contracts, that safety and efficiency remain priorities, that ATC has a "stable, predictable funding stream," and that air traffic control service "all segments of the aviation community," from commercial carriers to general aviation, and at airports large and small.

But not everyone is on board.

The National Business Aviation Association, a lobbyist group for business-focused general aviation (think private jets), says that because airlines and their employees (like pilots unions) will hold a majority of seats on the board of the new non-profit, they will have priority to make "decisions over access to airports and airspace" in their own interest, rather than the interest of the entire public. In other words, the NBAA appears to be concerned that privately owned aircraft could get banned from large airports like JFK or Newark in favor of commercial jets.

even the airlines aren't all on board

Even airlines aren't all on board. Delta says privatizing air traffic control will increase costs to travelers because fees will be tacked on to flights, making them more expensive and thus discouraging some number of flyers from flying. Though the bill would save taxpayers some amount of money by shifting ATC funding off of government books, it's unlikely that any individual taxpayer would see any change at all. Instead, airline tickets would likely become slightly more expensive.

And House Democrats oppose the bill because, says Ranking Member of the Aviation Subcommittee Rick Larsen D-WA, it would demote the Department of Defense to a mere advisory role to the private corporation, rather than working in partnership with the FAA, "and that's just not a role I am comfortable relegating primarily to a private corporation." Another concern raised in a hearing this week was that the control over ATC would be handed over to a private company for free, and if the company were to fail, the US Government would be obligated to step in as it would be too important to collapse.

but does it matter?

Every organization and individual has politics and motivations, whether money or constituents or donors, to worry about. But what about the flying public? Does it matter to us?

Ultimately, probably not — apart from the possibility of yet another small fee tacked onto an already expensive ticket.  But the planes themselves will still fly. Unless you have a direct involvement with an airline or air traffic control or are a private pilot, it's likely that the entire switchover would be relatively invisible.

Correction: This post originally mischaracterized Representative Larsen's concerns over the role of the Department of Defense in the proposed air traffic control plan. Rep. Larsen is concerned about DoD being demoted to an advisory role to the new corporation, rather than working together with the FAA. It originally stated that the proposal would shift primary control of air traffic control away from DoD.