Could privatizing air traffic control cost passengers more?

Small airports also worried about impact
Posted at 8:18 PM, Jun 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-05 22:28:17-04

DENVER-- President Trump said his plan to reform the country's air traffic control system will save money, but a study released last year predicts a 20 to 29 percent increase in operational costs over the next decade if the system is privatized.

Experts predict that eventually passengers will be on the hook for those increased costs.

"Somehow people are going to have to pay for it," said James Simmons, a professor of aviation and aerospace science for Metropolitan State University of Denver. "It’s always going to have to be the passenger. Whether it’s a direct charge or whether it’s absorbed in their ticket price."

President Trump's proposal would take the air traffic control system away from the Federal Aviation Administration and hand it over to a private, non-profit organization.

A study last year by Delta Airlines found that in the first six years after privatization, air traffic control fees in Canada shot up 59 percent, and in the United Kingdom, they went up 30 percent.

Using those rates, the study concludes that if the US privatizes, “Operational costs for ATC in the United States could increase by 20 to 29 percent after ten years.”

Simmons said it is not clear yet exactly how user fees would be applied in the United States, and the devil is in those details.

"Delta makes a pretty convincing case for the costs for other systems in the world have been rising more dramatically than the FAA’s operating costs have been rising," said Simmons, who does not think the system should be privatized. "In addition, we do have the safest system in the world, and the FAA has been on a vigorous modernization program for the last several years."

Meanwhile, small airports are concerned high user fees will favor large airlines and make it more difficult for private pilots to fly.

At Front Range Airport, which gives back $75 million annually to the local economy, the director said the concern is this could shut down small airports.

"I think that is a concern," said Dave Ruppel, director of Front Range Airport. "If you make it harder for small aircraft owners to fly, some of them are just going to stop. You look at private ATC in other countries, and it has had a tremendously negative impact on general aviation."