House Transportation Chairman Proposes Privatizing Air Traffic Control

Published July 27, 2015

The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is introducing a bill that would privatize air traffic control at the nation’s airports, separating the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) traffic control responsibilities from its role as a regulatory agency.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) is planning to file a bill spinning off FAA’s operational arm, the Air Traffic Organization, into an independent nonprofit corporation overseen by a board of directors representing airlines, private plane owners, and organized labor associations.

‘Regulators,’ Not ‘Service Providers’

Marc Scribner, a transportation policy research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says reforms of the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system are long overdue.

            “The United States is now poised to finally reform air traffic control in a manner similar to what most of the industrialized world has done over the past three decades,” Scribner said. “As they discovered, aviation safety regulators make for poor air navigation service providers.”

ATC systems in countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are either partially or fully privatized.

Scribner says the current system has held back innovations in the industry, such as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a satellite-based air transportation routing system.

“The outdated FAA institutional framework is largely responsible for the ongoing failed rollout of NextGen,” Scribner said. “Moving toward an independent nonprofit model, much like Nav Canada, will enable U.S. aviation to finally inch into the 21st century.”

International Potential

Kristian Niemietz, a senior research fellow at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, says ATC privatization could catch on in other countries if it proves successful in the United States.

“The privatization of air traffic control, perhaps along the lines of a utility industry, is an idea which, at the very least, deserves serious consideration,” Niemietz said. “In fact, the idea would be even more relevant for the European context than for the United States.

“Ironically, while the European Union shows centralizing and harmonizing ambitions in areas where individual countries and regions … are perfectly able to manage their own affairs, the management of European airspace, one of the few areas where international coordination really would deliver substantial benefits, remains heavily fragmented,” Niemietz said.


D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.