What Can One Do?

NATCA has endorsed a privatization of FAA Air Traffic Control. I don’t understand it; I don’t think it has the controller workforce’s best interests at heart. I don’t think this is good for a controller’s career or family.


In previous posts, we’ve examined:

and there’s been a lot of information and maybe some perspective. But at the end of the day, NATCA has endorsed privatizing the FAA controller workforce – and what can you do about that?


There are specific action steps you can take:

  • Communicate. Write to your members of Congress and tell them why privatizing the ATC facilities in their districts is 1 bad policy with unforeseen implications that will reduce the safety of the flying public and 2 reduce Congressional oversight of this inherently governmental function.
  • Organize. Find out if your facility Rep supports the Privatization endorsement. 3 Make sure your Rep knows that you intend that the next FacRep election will choose somebody who rejects Privatization. 4 Let your RVP know the same thing. If they haven’t taken a position on Privatization, or if they’re in wait-and-see mode about your career status, they’re not focusing on the most important things.
  • Change NATCA. Everybody gets to make a mistake. 5A Let the National Office know that they’ve made a mistake and you want to see a correction. 5B If they don’t reverse, elect a non-Privatization slate at the next Convention and Election.
  • Be the change. You can sit and gripe, or you can 6step up and make changes, which will be inconvenient, take up your time, and ensure your family’s future with the secure career you thought you had. 7 Be the Anti-Privatization FacRep. Be the Anti-Privatization RVP.
  • 8 Do not quit the Union. Organized labor is a great thing; your career rides on the back of decades of struggle. Don’t jump ship over an important disagreement. Don’t take your voice out of the Union.
  • 9 Remember who did this to you. Never forget.


There was a moment in a South Carolina debate where Donald Trump said: 9/11 was a security failure; Iraq and Afghanistan have both been disasters.  The whole room changed, because somebody had told a truth that had previously been unspeakable, in a mutual-tacit self-censorship among all the wannabees — who clearly understood that speaking this particular truth was not beneficial to their self-interest. Until Trump popped the balloon, the only thing they all agreed on was Not Speaking that Truth.

We’ve been handed a similar story in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: the bevy of toadies and hangers-on who were unwilling to say that the King’s new clothes were non-existent, until an innocent child blurted out the simple truth that everybody, every single one of them, was unwilling to express.


Why does everybody want to privatize ATC? It’s mostly because NextGen is a debacle, nobody’s willing to admit it, everybody’s invested in the salesmen’s promises, and they all need a fall-guy. Congress, Industry, Airlines, and FAA careerists all perpetuated the con-job, and they know they need a fall-guy, and it’s going to be: the FAA.


Multiple FAA administrations, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, had partaken of the NextGen hype and shoveled money at various projects without any sense of an integrated plan or project management; the future was here, computers could do anything, and (the recurring fantasy) they’d be able to automate air traffic controllers out of the system. If you asked NextGen, the air traffic controllers weren’t a feature, they were a bug.

I am no Luddite; the new technologies can do amazing things. In the Gulf of Mexico oil derricks, for air ambulance operations, there are game-changing benefits – but we were using them without the NextGen umbrella. There’s a few points that must be made:

  • The new technologies – GPS, flight directors, digital airplanes – can deliver their magic without the NextGen framework.
  • NextGen wizardry can do amazing things with a single airplane. It’s trickier with a lot of airplanes. NextGen does not accommodate non-standard operations (which is a euphemism for snowstorms, thunderstorms, and FUBAR-storms) and non-standard ops is where the ATC system makes it’s money.
  • NextGen was a self-licking ice cream cone that brought vendors, Congress, and FAA careerists into a self-reinforcing delusion of the next new thing. As long as nobody blurted out the truth, the living was easy and people went along to get along.
  • This is not the first time that Industry, Congress, and the FAA has done this. The Advanced Automation System, the most expensive software debacle in history, was the previous rendition of this same story. It’s like StarWars 4 and 7.
  • NextGen was cost-justified by promising to do away with the old systems and their maintenance budgets; 9-11 and other events have proven that we won’t do away with the legacy primary radars. The cost-justification was a thin tissue that’s been blown away, and now the public is paying for two systems.
  • NextGen will not increase airport capacity; runways do that.
  • NextGen is an open, non-encrypted, non-secure system. A nervous cheating husband put a GPS blocker on his car, fearing that his wife had hidden a GPS tracker; every time he drove by the Newark Airport on I95, the NextGen monitors rolled over and died. Think about that.
  • NextGen requires all the airplanes to be NextGen equipped. It’s not like some cars will be autonomous and some cars will have drivers – it’s like, OK everybody has to get an autonomous car. Your old car isn’t eligible.
  • NextGen changes the mantra from “first come, first served” to “best equipped, best served” which serves the entrenched and well-financed. It’s like: the public highway is now only for Lexus-drivers.

  The unspeakable but universal truth is: NextGen is a charade, foisted on the taxpayers by Vendor-hype, with promises made to Airlines that aren’t going to ever appear, used as graft between fund-raising Congresspeople and airlines, and tolerated by risk-averse careerists.  

Usually you could rely on Senate Democrats to thwart such a monumentally expensive land-grab. The wrinkle is: Senator Chuck Schumer, the heir apparent to the Democratic leadership in the Senate. Schumer is a down-state New Yorker, and he needed to deliver a reason for Upstaters to vote for him, so he promised increased airline service at upstate cities (Buffalo, Rochester, Schenectady, Albany).

Schumer made a deal with JetBlue; he’d get JetBlue whatever they needed at JFK if they’d increase Upstate service. In fact, Chuck Schumer is on record for getting the FAA to pay for JetBlue’s NextGen upgrade expenses. Chuck Schumer is invested in the myth of NextGen. (more).

NextGen was a compilation of sales pitches. A lot of people profited from the blizzard of funding activity and now it’s falling apart. Rather than admit the fiasco, or even simply feign benign indifference, the rent-seekers and money-grubbers see their own debacle as a profit opportunity – hey, we’ve screwed this up, let’s privatize! Win-Win!

If they blame the status quo, they won’t have to face accountability for the waste and fraud they’ve perpetrated on the taxpayer. I understand that. I just don’t understand why NATCA leadership is supporting the charade and endorsing privatization.

In previous posts, we’ve examined how NATCA’s priorities in Privatization are distinctly different from a controller’s priorities, and we’ve also considered how the NATCA-endorsed privatized ATC system might have responded on 9-11.

In this post, let’s talk about the Economic Impact of Privatization. Industry is very quick to claim that Corporations are Efficient, and that free markets make the most efficient allocation of resources. So very often, though, corporations’ key competency is moving expenses off their balancesheets and onto third parties, and keeping the profitable aspects of the total transaction for themselves.

For an example: airlines have determined that it’s cost-effective for them to operate schedules that delay the American flying public by millions of hours each year. The airlines do not feel the cost of that decision; it’s moved onto the public. The airlines do reap the economic benefits of a cost-justified operating schedule.

So when we say that a Privatized ATC function is going to be more efficient, let’s not look at the minor items like staffing tweaks and reduced management; let’s look at the bedrock marketplace that’s going on, and how privatization affects it.

Who owns the airspace? The answer is: the American people. It’s sort of like: who owns frequency spectrum management? Who owns the shipping channels in the Mississippi River?

Who has paid for the existing aviation infrastructure? The American taxpayer.

Who is American aviation supposed to benefit – the people (narrowed perhaps to Taxpayers, or the FlyingPublic) or the the corporations (airlines and vendors)?

We have a significantly lassez-faire aviation transportation system. We operate on first-come, first-serve. You want to fly your small-business jet into LasVegas or SFO – you can do that, it’s a public-use airport accessed by first-come, first-serve.

There are just a few airports with slots systems, in which individual airlines “own” the right to land a certain number of planes per hour. We can discuss that later; in general, the American aviation system is just like the American highway system – anybody can choose to operate in it, where they want, when they want. That’s a significant philosophy. It’s sort of American.

Access to the aviation system, access to the route structure, access to the airports is an unregulated economy (since 1978). There are public goods, Industry would like to profit from the public’s investment, and the metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons applies.

Airlines are routinely scheduling key airport operations at hourly rates that are not sustainable during bad weather. They do this to maximize the use of their assets, distributing their fixed costs over as broad a spread as possible. But when it rains, or snows, or there’s thunderstorms – there’s too many airplanes scheduled to go flying.

The FAA does not pre-control the market for the route structure or for airport landings. However, when demand (flights) exceeds capabilities (runways), the FAA slows down the problem. They don’t want to stop the flow completely; the goal is to slow it down to a rate that’s safe and sustainable in actual conditions.

And in the middle of that Airline-Airport-Airway economy, that allocation of precious resources, Pat CEO who owns a small manufacturing company can fly her BizJet into the metro area and that one BizJet probably means one less airline operation that hour.

The airlines tell the passengers: the FAA is delaying our flights. It’s a good bogey-man, but it’s not true; what’s delaying the flights is that the airlines over-schedule airports, just like they over-sell seats, because it means more money for them. The FAA is the voice of operational restraint that says: Whoa, you can’t do that safely  today; wait your turn.

And now NATCA has endorsed moving the FAA into a Privatized system run (Mostly) by the airlines. From an economics perspective, there’s a few things wrong with that.

  • It’s handing over an infrastructure worth trillions, developed over 70 years and paid for by the American taxpayer, to an Airline industry for them to run without any reimbursement for the standing investment. (more).
  • it allows Corporations to manage, manipulate, and extract value from a public asset
  • it supposes that Corporations will operate as safely as the world’s best air traffic control system (the one the US Government provides)
  • it puts Airlines in charge of running their flow control into airports, which presents significant benefits to established airlines and closes the market to newcomers. Corporations like that.
  • It puts Airlines in charge of restricting flows when demand exceeds capacity, which is something they’ve shown they’re not capable of doing.
  • The FAA mantra is: safe, orderly, and expeditious (and in that order). When we move ATC out of government and into a budget-driven airline-led organization, it’s inevitable that Costs will cloud safety judgement. Do you want the Flint water debacle playing out with passenger jets?
  • Operationally, an Airline-led ATC system will see a return to significant airborne holding for the arrival queues. It’s what happened in the late 1970’s when we let the airlines do what they want; it’s what they’ll revert to when they get control of the system. High-volume, routine airborne holding is a disaster.

The industry argument is that Privatized ATC will save money by making minor efficiencies around the edges of staffing and planning. What they’re ignoring (of course) is the real economic swindle of letting the airlines run the American aviation system, which is a lot like putting UPS, FedEx, and General Motors in charge of the Interstate Highway System.

Finally, in the economic realm: I understand why Industry wants to privatize the ATC system. What I don’t understand is: what’s in it for today’s air traffic control workforce? I don’t see any benefit. And if there’s no benefit to the workforce, this invites pondering what motivates NATCA leadership to endorse it. Cui bono?

We live in a post-911 world. The Military-Industrial Complex has become the HomeLand-Security-Military-Industrial-Complex. A big part of that change are the HSMIC Vendors, the same people who want to privatize ATC. There’s an huge industry that has benefited from 9-11, that wants to continue growing, and NATCA has just supported moving FAA controllers into that private industry of profiteers.

In any discussion, there’s a lot of things a person can focus on. There’s the hedgehog-fox phenomenon, where one sees just one thing and the other sees everything. For this post, I’d like to focus on “first principles“, and play Hedgehog 9-11.

Recognizing that in spite of the 1970 Corson Report (the first Green Book), the 1982 Jones Report, and the short-lived 1989 Operational Position Standards (OPS) project, there’s so very much that’s just not written down anywhere, tacit cultural knowledge – let’s look for First Principles in what is written down. (sidebar: if you don’t know about those reports, you’re not paying sufficient attention to your career field)

The primary purpose of the ATC system is

  • 1to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system
  • 2 and to organize and expedite the flow of traffic,
  • 3 and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense.

In addition to its primary function, the ATC system has the capability to provide (with certain limitations) additional services.

a. Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment shall be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based on the requirements of the situation at hand.

So, one of the three primary purposes of the ATC system is to support National Security and Homeland Defense. (sounds like an inherently governmental function to me). Let’s talk about 9-11 if, in 2001, we were working within a privatized ATC system as NATCA has endorsed.


There’s about 32 necktie-wearing people who modestly claim that they were responsible for grounding all the planes after they started crashing into buildings. I’m not sure that any of them are telling the truth, but there was a significant decision made starting in the New York area and rapidly spreading across the country. It’s the sort of nimble, dynamic response that everybody wants Organizations to be able to make.

  Question One. Do you think that all the planes on 9-11 would be grounded as quickly in an airline-managed system?    I don’t think so.

Let’s indulge in one more bit of 9-11 what-if. Do you know that after the crashes, the people at New York Center knew they’d just participated in history on the order of Pearl Harbor. The Manager asked the Union Rep, we need to interview the controllers, and record all their recollections because once they leave the building their memories and focus will deteriorate.

The Union Rep said, No way you’re going to have a wide-ranging interview and make an audio recording of it, outside of normal channels. The Manager said: I guarantee it’ll never leave the building unless we both agree on it. They shook hands, the interviews were conducted, the sessions were audio-recorded.

Could you imagine having audio tapes of the play-by-play of the attack on Pearl Harbor? That’s what they had. Months later, word of the recordings got to DC, and Congress and various potentates demanded the recordings, and it was political and not operational. The Manager and the Rep discussed it. They did not agree to send the tapes out of the building.

The Manager smashed the cassette tapes. He cut up the magnetic tapes into very short segments, and mixed them all up. The remains were driven around to a few different dumpsters, and they waited until the dumpsters were emptied and the snippets of magnetic tape were buried in landfills to tell any Officials what they’d done. The Manager and the Rep kept the integrity of their agreement. You can read about it in the NY Times. I’m not saying the process was pretty or simple, but it worked.

  Question 2: Do you think it would have played this way in an airline/corporate ATC system?   I don’t think so.

And so, in a space-and-time where so much is defined by 9-11, let me ask:  Would the ATC system endorsed by NATCA have done as well on 9-11 as the ATC system we have today? 

More to come.