Mike Willey, a pilot for more than 50 years, thinks that spinning off the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and making it into a separate, not-for-profit entity could be beneficial for small-town airports.
Willey serves on the Airport Advisory Council for the Central Maine Regional Airport, which is owned by the Town of Norridgewock and located about five miles from its central business district.
Like many small-town airports serving rural areas across the United States, the Central Maine Regional Airport handles nowhere near the passenger traffic of the nation’s largest hubs in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston or Atlanta and on average conducts 27 aircraft operations each day. Comparatively, the D.C. metro area’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport averages 825 airport operations a day.
Nevertheless, the airport serves a vital purpose. Some small-airport stakeholders are concerned that ATC privatization could deplete resources from rural airports. And with fewer resources, there would be fewer flights and less money to continue operations, they worry.
But the ATC privatization proposal “provides an incredible opportunity to modernize air traffic control and bring it into the 21st Century,” Willey told Transportation Today in an interview.
Willey thinks that U.S. air traffic controllers do an amazing job, particularly considering using what he referred to in a recent op-ed he wrote for a local newspaper as “an archaic manual system,” and he said the nation’s ATC system remains the safest in the world.
However, the ATC system isn’t capable of meeting the challenges associated with efficiently managing the current volume and projected growth in America’s airspace, he said, pointing to data from the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The RITA data shows that the costs of an outdated ATC system are responsible for almost half of U.S. flight delays and cancellations.
“The data is right there and available to anyone; anyone can see the delays and the costs,” said Willey, adding that such delays and cancellations cost the U.S. economy roughly $25 billion a year.
The increased costs are due to flights taking longer as airlines adjust for ATC gridlock and account for wasted fuel, said Willey, specifying he was speaking as a private citizen and not a representative of the airport or council.
“Small, rural states like Maine feel these costs the most because we depend on regional air service to connect small communities to wider markets,” Willey explained in his op-ed. “Regional carriers are at the end of the delay chain because small delays in the mainline system are magnified when trying to connect to these smaller carriers serving our state.”
At the same time, he said, the average U.S. regional airport has seen departures drop by four per day since 2006 “and our outdated air traffic control system is a major reason why” because many small airports are now too expensive to fly into.
But having an independent nonprofit in control of the national airspace would help, Willey said, because it would be run by aviation stakeholders who would manage ATC to the benefit of its users. For instance, passengers would benefit from faster, more reliable, less expensive flights, and smaller communities like many in Maine—which he said have suffered dramatic service cuts over the last decade—would reap the benefits brought by increased service.
“This reform would remove air traffic control from political meddling and finally allow us to make much-needed investments in air traffic control,” he wrote. “The air traffic control system in its present form simply cannot sustain itself.”
And while ATC privatization wouldn’t solve all of the delay issues, Willey pointed out, airport infrastructure improvements would help as long as Congress can decide on who will pay for them.
ATC privatization “only deals with part of the problem and not with the infrastructure problem,” Willey said. “The status quo isn’t going to pay for the infrastructure-related problems that contribute to delays. Someone will have to pay for it.”
President Donald Trump is on board with ATC privatization being the solution to handle airport infrastructure-related issues, while the FAA would continue to focus on safety, among other priorities outside of ATC.