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What Would Happen if White House Officials Talked to a Pilot About Air Traffic Control Privatization?

By Craig Fuller

Craig Fuller

The White House Economic Policy Council seems to have assumed responsibility for determining how best to remove the nation’s air traffic control system from the FAA where it sits today within the federal government. While reviewing comments coming from one official leading the effort, I had a sense that he had never really discussed this idea with a pilot.

So, here is a fictional account of what just might happen if such a conversation were ever to occur….

The following takes place between 10 AM and 11 AM in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House (not really, but it sounds good).

The following people gathered for a discussion about privatizing the nation’s air traffic control operations:

White House Official (WHO);

White House Assistant for Technology (WHAT);

White House Economic Research & Evaluation staffer (WHERE)

A Pilot (PILOT)

WHO:  Thanks for coming in this morning. We’ve been asked by the President to move the Air Traffic Control system out of government and into a private, not-for-profit entity. We think this should speed modernization and allow us to catch-up with the rest of the world. And, it will allow pilots like you to use GPS. So, what do you think?

PILOT:  It’s an honor to be here and I welcome your questions. I’ve flown airplanes for 50 years…everything from a two-seat fabric covered aircraft to a state-of-the-art business jet and a lot of aircraft types in between. Maybe it would be best for you to ask me specific questions because I am not all that sure just what you have in mind nor am I sure I understand the problems you are trying to solve.

WHAT:  Well, for starters, you can’t possibly want to keep relying on World War II technology, can you?

PILOT:  Good place to start….we don’t! This is a myth. Yes, radar systems came about in WWII, but the technology has evolved in very important ways. With transponders, developed in the US, aircraft have been sending digital information to flight controllers since the 1970s. As systems improved, the tracking of aircraft became more precise and the controllers gained more and more information. We departed the era of “the blip” on the screen a long time ago.

WHERE:  But, our research shows that pilots want to use global positioning satellite (GPS) navigation systems, not just updated radar technology….isn’t this right?

PILOT:  Here is where you misunderstand something very important.  Operating an aircraft today and providing air traffic control services are two very different things. As pilots, we work very closely with controllers and have a high regard for the essential work they do. However, just a few years ago the technology in my 1998 two-seat aircraft, where I relied upon GPS and a moving map with weather depictions provided better information to me in the cockpit than what the controller was receiving on the ground. And, until just the past few years, I had more capabilities than many commercial aircraft. And, when it comes to business jets, the flight management systems collect navigation information from multiple sources that can deliver their aircraft over an exact point on the map at precise altitudes and speeds.

WHO:  We thought that we were running behind other countries….you make it sound like we have the latest technology here in the US.

PILOT:  We not only have it, we invented it. After President Reagan approved GPS developed by the US Defense Department for civilian commercial use, two individuals named Gary and Min created a company in the late 1980s called GARMIN. Their company was producing handheld GPS equipment that pilots began taking into their airplanes in the early 1990s. Within a decade, aircraft were relying on FAA-certified GPS avionics to navigate point to point.

WHAT:  But, how can you navigate point to point with the controllers having radar based systems?

PILOT:  This is what I’m trying to explain.  Controllers monitor aircraft positions. When pilots started flying with GPS-equipped aircraft and telling air traffic controllers that wanted to go direct from one point on the map to another, controllers began clearing them. Today, we have GPS routes that are point to point. Arrivals and departures that are GPS-based. And, more GPS-based instrument approaches than traditional ground-based ILS approaches. All the while, with transponders delivering accurate information to the controllers regarding location and altitude.

WHERE:  Then, why is ADS-B important?

PILOT:  So, some pilots would argue that it is less important to them because in the cockpit they have a great deal of information already. However, ADS-B sends a signal from an aircraft to a ground or satellite-based receiver that tells the controller exactly where an aircraft is located based on the GPS information coming from the aircraft. With greater precision comes more efficient methods of routing air traffic in and out of busy airspace and improvement upon the still existing limitations of transponders and radar. ADS-B can also bring more information into the cockpit regarding weather and traffic which benefits a pilot’s situational awareness.

WHO:  So, why is it taking the FAA so long to get on with getting ADS-B in place if it is all part of NextGen and modernization?

PILOT:  Well, this may surprise you a bit…understand that the US developed ADS-B. And, the FAA put an early version into Alaska where there are special tracking needs when it comes to aircraft operating in the difficult terrain of that state. Then, the FAA, working with an American company, installed ADS-B receivers throughout the country, including the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf, we are already seeing benefits. But, to “turn on” the full capability of ADS-B, aircraft need to be equipped and that is happening now with a 2020 deadline. Until then, we will operate with “mixed equipage” among aircraft.

WHERE:  Wait, you mean that the FAA has actually implemented their technology ahead of commercial aviation?

PILOT:  Not only that, the FAA and its contractor were ahead of schedule and on budget. In fairness, many airlines wanted to make sure that before they invested in the new technology the government would follow through.  When 2020 deadlines for equipping aircraft are met, the improved surveillance capability should be operational early in the next decade.

WHO:  We’ve been looking at all of this as a technology initiative and figuring the private sector could get it done faster….but, this is sounding a little more complicated.

PILOT:  Here’s the thing, the US has the largest and most diverse air transportation system in the world. It is also the safest and most efficient. Not long ago when I was meeting with European aviation officials, one of them reported that throughout all of Europe combined, they handle about as much traffic, but they do it at twice the cost when compared to our FAA. Modernizing our system is far more than technology. The process involves complex rules that protect the safety of all who fly in the national airspace. Controllers must be fully engaged in the development of changes since they are managing over 50,000 flights every day. Flight departments and pilots must be trained to understand changes in the system. Airports must understand how changes will impact them. And, as we are learning all the time, any changes in flight patterns with arriving and departing aircraft must involve full engagement with local communities around noise and other issues. There may be those who at one point in time thought you could somehow acquire new technology and just introduce it; but, that approach has never worked when it comes to something so complex. It has taken a building block approach where capabilities have been added to address the highest priority needs. With a strong foundation in place, more and more benefits should be realized.

WHERE:  OK, but you said something about “priorities.” Who sets the priorities and how can we trust the government to do this right?

PILOT:  Honestly, you can look at a long list of public policy deliberations and you will be hard put to find a more extensive collaborative process than the one all of us rely upon in the aviation community.  The FAA uses an advisory committee called the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) to guide the design, development and evaluation of air transportation modernization. Virtually the entire aviation community along with senior FAA officials are involved. And, importantly, the NAC has been chaired since its inception in 2010 by chief executives from our nation’s commercial air carriers. Sitting alongside the airlines are general aviation, business aviation, controllers, DOD, airports, manufacturers and many others. This group works to prioritize the approach to modernization. They’ve been a key part of the success over the past several years and they are charting the path forward.

WHO:  So, would things move faster if we took the Air Traffic Control operation out of the FAA?

PILOT:  There probably are ways to do it, but every nation that has completed this kind of separation reports a multi-year transition process; and, none of the countries involved were right in the middle of a major modernization of their system. So, there is pretty compelling evidence that, even if you could overcome the sizable policy and political objections that have been raised every time this has been addressed over the past three decades, a slowdown in current modernization would likely occur for a period of years.

While everyone wants initiatives to move faster, when you dig into what has happened, you will find a good deal of progress has been made. As for reporting on the progress, the FAA is remarkably transparent. Whether you spend a little time or a lot on their NextGen website, you will better understand just how much the FAA, working with the aviation community, has accomplished.

WHAT:  Is there anything we can do to help?

PILOT:  Actually, there is.  Provide the FAA with multiyear budget authority.  Give the FAA Administrator more flexibility with regard to how he can use money in the various FAA accounts. And, to address serious capital investment needs, find a way for the FAA to fund projects out of a capital account. Putting state of the art technology into 50-year old structures is untenable. What’s needed is a consolidated number of modern air traffic control centers. These and a few other initiatives would fit nicely into an FAA Reauthorization measure and have been recommended by the FAA Management Advisory Council.

If the FAA had the recommended financing ability and the technology in place in 2020, I’m sure those who have advocated separating ATC from the FAA will be back; but, at least then an evaluation could be made about how best to run a modernized air transportation system and the aviation community could be given time to evaluate what more is really needed to move the largest, safest, most complex air transportation system forward into the next decade.

Thanks for giving me the time to share the views of just one pilot…..


Who knows…maybe one day this kind of dialogue will take place.


This article was re-posted with permission from Craig Fuller.  

Mr. Fuller is currently

– Chairman, The Fuller Company

– Chairman, Redbird Flight Simulations

– Member, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),

  Management Advisory Council (MAC)

– Member, Board of Directors, Bidding Ace

– Member, International Advisory Board, APCO Worldwide and the former  President and CEO, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

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