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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3 Responses to “Privatized ATC May Solve Pilot Shortage”

  1. Antoine Says:

    The premise for your article supposes that we are able to ensure essentially 100% availability mission-critical telecom links from any airplane overflying the earth. This may seem like a given these days but it really is not. We don’t even have radar covering most of the earth even though this may soon be fixed with satellite ADS-B.

    We have had CPDLC in Europe for a few years now and I wouldn’t trust with anything else than frequency changes or other non-critical things. The connectivity is not very good despite Europe being a pretty small place with many population centers. Some days, it will even refuse to connect for more than a few minutes and then drop.

    You could argue that this can be fixed with fancy satellite communications but this is also not a given. The frequency spectrum has to be shared with all the space telecom uses. There is obviously only one and in many countries including the US most frequencies are owned by the military. Supposing these frequencies are given out appropriately, you have to keep in mind that such an RF medium is shared by all the users which means that the more users the more you will encounter telecom mayhem with transmission collisions and such. This is especially a problem as airplanes like to congregate around small areas such as airports.

    Also, let’s not forget this is only scratching the surface. Many aircraft are currently flying around with no or little enveloppe protection. This is definitely not acceptable for autonomous aircraft as they must be able to recover or, at least, avoid getting into upsets. For the aircraft that do have enveloppe protection, they still have complex reversion modes that do away with most of the protections. Expecting any person to be able to jump into a degraded situation and fly an airplane in some downgraded mode is, in my opinion, unreasonnable.

    We could talk about this all day. I think people should realize how much technology is over-hyped these days. The delta between what is being publicized and the reality is huge. Most of what you read in the news every day is barely at the prototype stage if not just an idea. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying let’s make it work step by step and there are many steps before we can even think about getting things like this to work.

    We have privatized ATC in Europe and have had it for years. It doesn’t change anything beside user fees and GA being kept out of most of the airspace. Privatization and CPDLC won’t help :)

  2. Louis Says:

    As a passenger, it frightens me that the aircraft will not be controlled by a pilot.

  3. @williamAirways Says:

    I don’t think the public will out right accept 100% automated transports. However, eliminating the crew from 2 pilots to 1 is feasible with today’s technologies. Boeing is already testing this. Now why do you think they’re spending big dollars testing this idea if there’s no market for it? After all, you only really need a monkey up there to taxi, takeoff, land (maybe), and push some buttons. In the unlikely event of a catastrophic systems failure, the monkey earns the banana.

    By reducing the flight crew count from 2 to 1, you solve this pilot shortage issue. Those with concerns about medical debilitation, you require mandatory retirement to 55 and you’ll get more public acceptance. People are not going to give up a flying. So when the airlines say we’re going to go from 2 to 1 pilot, those who still want to travel the world or see their grandchildren can either drive or take the train…and we all know how awesome our train system is in this country. Thus, the public will reluctantly buy the tickets to fly on these single pilot jets…and years later, with no accidents, the public will accept it as normal, just like they did when the crew count went from 5 to 3 to 2.

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