Privatized ATC May Solve Pilot Shortage

By Scott Spangler on May 8th, 2017

pp_dc_body1This headline isn’t as strange as it sounds when you consider that the airlines are the leading promoters and supporters of privatizing air traffic control, and that the managers have often been at odds with the laborers (like pilots). Mix this with the travails of another “government corporation,” the U.S. Postal Service, and the growing capabilities of the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems digital data communications systems, and you have the makings for some dystopian devil’s advocacy.

Behind all of this is the acceptance that business leaders, regardless of the industry involved, are guided by one thing—the bottom line. Depending on their morals, they’ll do anything to increase that number. And one way to increase that number is to reduce or eliminate things that subtract from it. Take, for example, the “ticket tax” they pay, which supports the air traffic control system.

That tax is based on the base fare passengers pay for that ticket. It does not take into account all of the fees passengers pay for things that used to be wrapped up in the ticket price, things like baggage. Those fees go directly to the airlines’ bottom line. Privatizing ATC is the next step in this process. It will replace the ticket tax with ATC user fees, and we all know who pays an airline’s fees, don’t we?

map-datacommNews that Minneapolis-St. Paul became the 55th U.S. airport to get data comm inspired this next train of thought. For those a bit fuzzy on this system, think ATC text messages between controllers and pilots. When the system is fully operational in both terminal and en route realms in 2023, it will render both parties essentially mute. ATC texts a clearance, reroute, or what have you to a pilot. The pilot reads it and then presses a button to accept or decline the instructions. If accepted, the pilot presses another button that loads the instructions into the airplane’s flight management system (FMS), which executes the instructions.

It is the next step in this capability that solves the pilot shortage. Except for takeoff and landing, the FMS does the flying. Adding the departure and arrival to its repertoire would at first reduce, and then eliminate the need for trained labor that makes it hard for managers to further build their respective bottom lines. That would make flight attendants the only crew on an airliner, and training one or two to backup the automated ATC-FMS connection would be a relatively simple task.

Because the airlines would dominate the board of a privatized ATC “corporation,” it would be easy to devise a pay for flight contract that would have controllers move airliners around the country as needed by sending the commanding data comm text messages to an unattended FMS. Because it would always be hungry for funding, thanks to its parsimonious board, it would have to take that “contract” to make ends meet, just as the Post Office has the contract with UPS to make the final delivery of a certain category of packages.

So maybe the idea of a privatized ATC solving the pilot shortage isn’t so far fetched. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it could surely happen as NextGen technology enables the bottom-line aspirations of airline executives. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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