A "commercialized" air traffic control system would be a disaster for general aviation. That's the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week.
"The GAO's look at other countries' experience with privatizing air traffic control confirms much of what AOPA has been saying for years," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "General aviation would be hurt and user fees are not the panacea for financing ATC."
The GAO looked at five commercialized air traffic control systems - air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in GAO's vernacular - and concluded, "The ANSPs have instituted or increased fees for general aviation operators, and some ANSPs have increased or plan to increase the costs of service to small or remote locations."
Nor are user fees necessarily the answer to securely funding an air traffic control system.
"Commercialized ANSPs must be prepared to mitigate the effects of an industry downturn through such measures as establishing a reserve fund, implementing a revenue-generating alternative to user fees, or cutting costs," the GAO said as part of the "lessons learned" in its study.
For example, NAV CANADA, the privatized air traffic control system to our north, had banked more than $66 million in operating reserves prior to September 11. With the airline industry downturn after the attacks, and again following the SARS outbreak, the reserve quickly became a $96.9 million deficit. To recover, NAV CANADA had to increase fees more than once. But that had the inadvertent effect of disrupting the economically stressed air carriers again, and once again depressing user fee revenue.
And while all of the ANSPs claimed greater efficiency over their government-operated predecessors, GAO couldn't document the claims. The "predecessor organizations did not necessarily gather or publicly report comparable data," the GAO report said. "Consequently, assessments of each ANSP's performance since commercialization are possible, but comparisons of performance before and after commercialization are generally not feasible."
"But a simple look at the numbers brings into question the supposed efficiency benefits from commercialization," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "U.S. controllers, based on the number of aircraft operations handled, are roughly three times more efficient than the average of the five ANSPs studied. The commercialized ANSPs also average three times as many employees in total (controllers and managers) per aircraft movement."
GAO did conclude that safety had not been compromised by commercialization.
"But they only looked at direct measures such as loss of separation," said Cebula. "GAO did not consider indirect safety impacts, such as pilots declining to use services because of the extraordinary costs charged by some of these systems."
The GAO evaluated the commercialized air traffic control systems in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Those five ATC systems together average about 14.5 million aircraft operations a year.
The United States has nearly 94 million operations a year. Just five of the FAA's 22 air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) handle more traffic than do the five national systems studied combined.
August 9, 2005