Monday, June 05, 2017

Free Skies? On Privatizing Air Traffic Control.

Why do the Republicans want to privatize air control? This article summarizes the reasons, I guess.

But how fascinating that the ultimate way we would measure the productivity and efficiency of an air traffic control system is utterly ignored in that push for privatization in everything, just because the freemarketgods should be getting their sacrifices:

While both sides of the privatization debate may laud the system's clean record, critics point out its "WWII-era radar technology" and process of physically passing paper strips with an individual's aircraft information and flight plan from controller to controller. FAA's NextGen program to introduce digital communications and GPS systems to replace decades old technology in one of the world's most complex airspaces has been slow; too slow for many in Washington, D.C.

What guarantees are there that a privatized system would produce the same clean record?  I think the probabilities work in a different direction.  For instance, what should the optimal distance between airplanes taking off be?  If that decision is not made purely on safety, but also on the basis of the profit motivation of large airlines, the calculations could be different and the outcome could be a dirtier record, with more accidents.*

And the way digital communications might be introduced should be carefully thought out, because we now know how good various groups of hackers can be.

This post doesn't mean that I would necessarily be opposed to privatization of air traffic control (though that's my initial stance, for safety reasons).  But the debate appears not to have enough data to justify Trump pushing it.  Neither did he campaign on it.

*  Partly, because there are jobs where trying to keep salaries low and working hours long is extremely counterproductive.  Private firms have different incentives in how to weigh various risks, and the pressure to suppress earnings is stronger for profit-oriented firms.  But tired and disgruntled air traffic controllers are something I don't want to contemplate before flying.