November 15, 2016

Democrats Raise Serious Concerns Facing Air Traffic Control Privatization Plan

Washington, D.C.-- Today, Ranking Member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) again highlighted major concerns about security, safety, and implementation issues facing any proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system. Their comments come on the same day that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that aviation experts are deeply divided and unable to answer serious questions about the consequences of privatization on national security and the ATC system’s financial stability.


“The results of last week’s election may have given proponents of air traffic control privatization hope that their proposal will have more success in the next Congress, but those same proponents have failed to answer the many serious questions regarding their plan. U.S. airlines boarded nearly 822 million people last year, and the aviation system accounts for more than 5 percent of our gross domestic product. Any proposal to overhaul the existing ATC system must be thoroughly vetted, not rushed through Congress just because the political landscape makes it easier. This GAO report raises serious concerns about whether ATC privatization will guarantee safety, expedite new technology, and keep the ATC system, solvent -- concerns which have not been addressed. If privatization proponents are serious about moving any ATC proposal forward in the new Congress, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure needs to schedule a series of hearings and hold in-depth discussions that address the major concerns raised by opponents, stakeholder groups, and the GAO. There is no consensus on this plan, and we cannot take that lightly,” said DeFazio.

“Today, the non-partisan, independent Government Accountability Office issued a report which concluded that privatizing our nation’s air traffic control system would be an arduous, expensive, and lengthy process to implement. The agency’s report underscores many obstacles to privatization – including the disruption of the Department of Defense’s role in securing our national airspace and the looming and unanswered question of user fees. The national airspace system is becoming more efficient thanks in large part to the progress being made on NextGen – progress that can and should continue without privatizing the world’s largest and most complex system of air traffic control,” said Larsen.


Key findings of today’s report include that the GAO’s panel of aviation experts could not confirm that a private ATC system would be capable of protecting national security and collaborating with the military to protect Americans from homeland security threats. Nor could they guarantee that a private corporation would speed up technological advances and NextGen implementation. The experts confirmed that a privatized air traffic control system would be heavily and negatively impacted by an economic downturn and a decrease in air travel. The report questioned the ability of an ATC corporation to set user fees and to guarantee those fees would be used to operate the system without disadvantaging certain user groups.


A previous report from the GAO found that ATC privatization would negatively affect small and rural communities by jeopardizing their access to the aviation system. It could also mean higher costs for passengers and other users of the system including general and business aviation. A privatized ATC system would be “too big to fail,” meaning consumers or taxpayers might have to bail out the private corporation if it couldn’t pay the $10 billion-plus that it costs to operate a safe system. And finally, privatization would jeopardize safety oversight by splitting the FAA in two and leaving safety programs vulnerable to sequestration and shutdowns. In March, the Congressional Budget Office determined that the Republican plan to privatize the United States ATC system would increase the deficit by nearly $20 billion over 10 years.


Since introducing the controversial proposal last February, proponents of ATC privatization have been unable to answer many key outstanding concerns:


  • Over the past 20 years, taxpayers have invested over $50 billion in more than 66,000 ATC assets. How will taxpayers be compensated for those assets when the proposal hands them over to a private ATC organization?
  • How will a privatized ATC system preserve access by air to small and rural communities?
  • How will ATC privatization expedite NextGen? Some experts interviewed by the GAO said restructuring would impede or have no effect on NextGen progress.
  • Would a non-governmental organization charged with running the air traffic control system be capable of protecting national security and assuming established air defense procedures shared between the FAA and the military as executive branch divisions?
  • How will a private air traffic control corporation set fair user fees to pay for the ATC system, and how would the corporation guarantee that the money will be used to operate the system?
  • Will taxpayers be liable to bail out the corporation if it can’t pay the $10-plus billion annual cost of running a safe and efficient ATC system?
  • How will consumers not end up paying more for airline tickets when the corporation increases user fees for air traffic services?


DeFazio and Larsen have led Democratic opposition to the plan to privatize the Federal ATC system. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held only one hearing, that lasted only three hours, on a plan to privatize the ATC system used by nearly 822 million travelers. The Committee marked up the plan and passed it over bipartisan opposition less than 24 hours later. For additional information, including background, letters of opposition, and Dear Colleague letters, click here.