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The Perils of Privatization

Privatization is the age-old right-wing response to imagined problems.

But if a public function like preventing plane crashes is transferred to corporations, the result could mean tragedy.

A threat to our wallets and flight safety, the air traffic control privatization effort currently underway in Congress is another move by right-wing lawmakers to deliver a favor for corporate interests while ignoring the consequences for consumers.

This week, Public Citizen joined with our partners in the Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization coalition to deliver more than 130,000 petition signatures to members of Congress demanding that air traffic control stay under federal government purview and not be spun off to a new corporatized entity.

The air traffic control system is neither broken nor bankrupt, and the only uncertainty in its running is the confusion instigated by Congress around Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding reauthorizations. The solution to the funding issue is not to privatize air traffic control but to give the FAA the stability it deserves.

Instead of focusing just on long-term funding, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) introduced the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (AIRR Act, H.R. 4441) last week that would drastically change the existing system if passed. The bill would reauthorize the FAA for six years, while also creating a brand new corporate entity to oversee air traffic control — a model with significant flaws and no advantages over our current system.

The private takeover of the Canadian air traffic control system in 1996 resulted in a reduction in staffing to the tune of 25 percent of the previous workforce. It continues to cause flight service station shutdowns across the country.

And in the United Kingdom, the public-private partnership that controls air traffic control has been bailed out twice by the government.

Job cuts and fewer facilities are just some of the likeliest threats to the air traffic control system. Increased costs have also come about after other counties privatized air traffic control. The entity envisioned in the AIRR Act would also have the ability set fees at its discretion, without input from the general public. Those increased fees would be passed onto customers, including picking up the tab for corporate executives flying on private jets.

Separating the entity that handles the day-to-day operations from the government’s oversight of safety rules only adds layers of confusion to a system that could mean disaster should there be miscommunication over appropriate standards. Because of their heavy representation in the proposed new air traffic control corporation, airlines seeking to cut corners where they can will have a greater authority to put in place changes that will reinforce their bottom lines at the expense of consumers.

Time and again, privatization schemes have ended in a bigger headache for the public than the original government-operated function. From parking meters to prisons, corporations and special interests are not concerned with maintaining public goods for the public good.

“There is no evidence that privatizing system will improve air travel in the United States, or even that it will ensure that the current level of safety will be maintained. In fact, evidence from the countries that have privatized their ATC systems suggests that the results of privatizing the ATC will be job losses and even potentially government bailouts,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said late last month of the legislation that was kept behind closed doors until its introduction.

But Democrats, consumer protection groups and aviation stakeholders are not the only ones concerned about the legislation. Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, on both sides of the aisle also have rejected privatization as a scheme to give the airlines too much power with too little accountability.

Since the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted yesterday to pass the AIRR Act, it’s urgent that Congress hear from as many air travelers as possible who are concerned with the potential safety risks and higher fees caused by a private air traffic control system. Please take action NOW to oppose air traffic control privatization and corporate control of our skies.

Keira Thompson is the online advocacy organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.