Why is Air Traffic Control a Government Function?

Last week the sequester finally began hitting Congress where it hurts – by snarling air traffic and delaying flights. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughed its air traffic controllers one day every two weeks, forcing the working controllers to slow down the aviation system in order to avoid potential reductions in safety margins. The result was delays at virtually all major airports for a week. The FAA estimated that more than 7,000 flights were delayed and quick Congressional action was needed to remedy the situation.

Congress and the Administration were busy fighting about who is to blame for these delays. While Congress and the President both agreed to the sequester, many members of Congress believed the Administration was intentionally inflicting maximum pain by furloughing air traffic controllers; the Administration argued that it had no choice based on the rules of the sequester.

This argument represents the typical partisanship that has paralyzed decision-making in Washington and left us without clear leadership or direction on almost everything. But it leads to the valid question: Why are air traffic controllers FAA employees in the first place? There is no good reason, outside of the fact that it has always been this way, for air traffic control and safety regulation to be under the same FAA umbrella, and doing so actually creates more problems than it solves.

The FAA is responsible for two basic functions: 1) air safety regulation; and 2) air traffic control. But while ensuring the safety of the flying public through regulation is a crucial effort that needs to remain under the control of the federal government, there is no inherent reason why air traffic control needs to be in the same agency, or even under federal control at all. In fact, there may be a conflict of interest in having air traffic control and its regulator under the same roof. Air traffic control is an operational function that should be performed independently and, perhaps even by a private nonprofit, with appropriate safety oversight from the FAA.

In fact, this has been the model in other countries for some time. NavCanada has been a private nonprofit corporation responsible for air traffic control in Canada since the Canadian Government sold it in 1996; it receives no public funding. In 1992, the U.K. made the strategic decision to separate its air traffic control operations from regulation – this was followed by full privatization in 2000. In the U.S. a privatized system similar to what exists in Canada or Great Britain could protect the nation’s air traffic control system from the vagaries of congressional budget battles and sequesters. But more importantly it could also provide greater efficiency without compromising safety.


The greatest benefit of separating the regulatory and operational functions within FAA could be faster implementation of the satellite-based NextGen system. As Eno has previously documented, this needed transition from radar-based to satellite-based air traffic control would have numerous benefits in terms of safety, fuel savings, and congestion reduction. But progress has been slow, and the FAA has settled into an incremental approach that will postpone many of the greatest benefits indefinitely. The delays with NextGen are likely related to the fact that the implementing agency is the same as the safety regulatory agency. A separate or private air traffic control operator could more easily develop effective performance measures and deadlines that would encourage manufacturers and airlines to invest. Part of the reluctance to invest on the part of the private sector stems from concerns about the FAA and the lack of certainty they are providing. A separate entity, freed from the regulatory bureaucracy, could be more flexible, transparent, and outcome-oriented.

The idea of corporatizing air traffic control is a bipartisan concept that has had strong backing from leading transportation thinkers for over two decades. In fact, we already use private sector operators for some control towers at smaller airports and the result has been lower costs without compromising safety. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) originally opposed the creation of these contract towers. However, because these contract towers are still funded through FAA and are thus subject to the cuts from the sequester, NATCA wound up fighting for their funding. It is possible that NATCA may, especially after this latest furlough episode, see the advantages to moving air traffic control out of the FAA.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations made earnest attempts at privatization but were held up by various political concerns, including NATCA opposition and a slow moving bureaucracy. But these obstacles may have shifted, and with other countries ahead of us on this, the U.S. cannot afford to fall behind. Just ask the legions of fed-up passengers last week how they might feel about it, to say nothing of the exhausted, overworked air traffic controllers who are still using outdated radar-based technology to oversee thousands of flights per day.

Anti-privatization forces typically claim that safety would be compromised and cite evidence that the number of safety “incidents” have increased since privatization in some countries. But there is substantial disagreement about the validity of these claims, because so many other factors are involved, and it is hard to imagine that there is something mystical about being federal employees that makes air traffic controllers work better. We do know that the citizens of Canada and the U.K. are satisfied with their privatized systems, and no international traveler thinks they should avoid the airspace in these countries due to safety concerns. One very real concern for unions could be the specter of lost jobs – but they are getting hit with that anyway now due to Congressional budget battles. Perhaps this sequester can have a positive impact on air travel if it gets us talking about how to better organize the FAA, air traffic control, and air traffic safety regulation. Eno will be analyzing these and other research questions in our NextGen working group, which will have a scoping meeting in the next few months. Let us know if you want to be a part of the conversation.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Washington Post on April 26. To read that article, click here.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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