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Parliament report slams Britain's privatized air traffic control systemParliament report slams Britain's privatized air traffic control system

AOPA is once again urging the White House to abandon any plans to privatize air traffic control in the United States, pointing to a scathing British government report on that country's National Air Traffic Services (NATS).

The report, issued in late July by Parliament's select committee on transport, said NATS has failed to provide the benefits promised when the semi-privatized system was set up. "We were told that the [public-private partnership] and the introduction of private sector management would deliver a more efficient air traffic control service," the committee said. "We have seen little evidence of those efficiencies or the improvements in NATS' management."

The committee was even more incredulous that NATS was considering reducing the number of safety-critical staff because of its current economic problems.

"Air traffic control assistants are vital to the safe operation of air traffic control," the committee said, "and it is incredible that NATS intends to reduce their number so soon after moving into a new, highly complex operating environment." And noting the "teething problems" with new computer equipment, the committee thought a plan to cut the number of engineers was "misplaced."

"Around the world, we're seeing that privatized or corporatized air traffic control systems are just not able to withstand economic fluctuations," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And yet here in the United States, President Bush has declared that ATC is not an inherently governmental function, clearing the way for the government to farm out safety to some sort of corporate entity."

In Britain, NATS itself told the committee that under current budget constraints, there is a trend toward "a culture where the opportunity for savings and deferments starts to become a more central objective than successful operation and development of the business."

The Parliament committee report concludes that NATS is "far from capable of meeting the challenges of the long-term future of air traffic control services in the United Kingdom. The cost-cutting and penny-pinching mentality foisted on NATS merely to survive will leave it ill-equipped to compete with the new satellite-based air traffic control service provision being developed in Europe and North America."

In Canada, NavCanada, often held up as a shining example by proponents of a user-fee-funded corporatized ATC, reported continued losses in both the third quarter of this fiscal year and in the fiscal year to date. For the quarter, Nav Canada reported actual operating expenses exceeded revenue by C$25 million, although by drawing on reserves and allowing fees charged to aircraft operators to increase, the corporation was able to mitigate the loss to C$12 million. The company says it sees no recovery in the near future. It plans to try to increase revenue by drawing down reserve cash accounts and possibly raising user fees.

"The most efficient, cost-effective, and fair way to generate revenue for air traffic control is the existing tax on aviation fuel and airline tickets," said Boyer. "And the proponents of corporatizing or privatizing ATC services always gloss over one important fact: The U.S air traffic control system is the safest and most efficient in the world, despite some of FAA's management failings.

"Corporatized systems elsewhere may have improved their own efficiency, but they still can't match the FAA. The theory that a user fee-funded corporatized air traffic control system is somehow 'better' just doesn't hold up when tested against real-world experience," Boyer concluded. "If the corporate model really is the panacea, then the airlines wouldn't be hitting up Congress for billions of dollars in bailout money."

With more than 385,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation organization, working to protect the interests of general aviation. Nearly two thirds of all U.S. pilots are members of AOPA.

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