Op-Ed: Why Does Labor Support Corporatizing Air Traffic Control?

September 28, 2017 

The most significant policy reform to our nation’s aviation system is currently winding its way through Congress. The plan would remove the air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration and create an independent, nonprofit organization governed by aviation stakeholders. Support for the idea is widespread. From airlines and taxpayer groups, to political figures on both sides of the aisle.

Most notable is the backing of labor unions for the for the plan. While organized labor is not exactly united on the matter, several key voices are in support. These include the air traffic controllers, and several airline pilots’ unions. This is significant because organized labor is occasionally quite vocal about their opposition to other forms of so-called “privatization” for things like prisonseducation, and other forms of infrastructure. Often for good reason.

So why is air traffic control different?

For one thing, it’s technically not privatization at all. Current proposals for air traffic control reform do not create a private for-profit entity but, rather, a nonprofit user co-operative utility. Plenty of these already exist to distribute water and electricity to many millions of Americans. In the case if aviation, such an arrangement would ensure that different groups have a voice in governing the system, including labor.

It is also important to note that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association supports such a profound reform because they are the ones in the trenches running the system day in and day out. While the network today is still remarkably safe thanks to these skilled professionals, they also know that our air traffic control system needs key updates and modernization that the federal government is not able to provide. Today, controllers still use paper strips (actual pieces of paper) to jot down information about the flights they are controlling. Our Canadian neighbors have been using electronic versions for a decade.

Controllers also see a system that is subjected to the whims of Congress. They have experienced painful and unnecessary furloughs because of political budget fights over topics not related to air traffic at all. Like all Americans, they want a better system, and realize that the current federal structure is too unpredictable and does not provide a stable environment to grow the industry and support its workers. The political uncertainty and the instability in the federal budget, coupled with demonstrated success of other forms of governance abroad provides impetus for the reforms.

Make no mistake, the air traffic controllers union also supports the existing legislative package of reforms because of the important provisions it negotiated. These protections include the right to collective bargaining and the ability to retain the health and pension benefits that controllers receive as federal employees. They also secured a potential seat at the governing board of the corporatized system. Without these protections—or if air traffic control were moved to a private for profit company—labors’ support of reform would evaporate.

Of course, it is probably not fair to generalize “labor” as a set of singular interests. The national aviation system is a complex, 24-hour, global operating system that supports one of our economy’s most important industries. Competing interests abound.

Nevertheless, it is important to not only recognize those unions that do support reform of air traffic control, but also why they support it. Ultimately, the goal is not change for change’s sake, nor is it to line the pockets of private firms or their investors. It is for a better air traffic control system.

An earlier version of this commentary noted the flight attendants’ union supports ATC reform. While the union supports the overall bill for various reasons, it is actually neutral on the specific topic of ATC.

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