Delta: Plan for 'private' air traffic control would cause fare hikes

A proposal from House Republicans to separate the nation's air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration would result in higher ticket prices for flights, Delta Airlines said Monday. 

The company said the plan would increase the costs of flight tickets by as much as 29 percent because passengers would be on the hook for increased fees that would be charged to help fund the creation of a new independent air traffic control organization. 

"Proponents have claimed that privatization would lead to cost savings for consumers. But no evidence has yet been produced to show that privatization would reduce costs,” Delta says in a study.

“In fact, nations that have privatized ATC have seen operational costs increase at a much higher rate than has been seen in the US under the FAA,” the study continued. 

Republicans in the House are pushing to create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the FAA in an upcoming funding measure.

Lawmakers are debating the air traffic control privatization proposal as Congress tries to beat a March 31 deadline for renewing the FAA's  funding.

GOP leaders in the House have said the proposed nongovernmental entity could better manage commercial and private jet flights in the nation's airspace.

"After examining various models, I believe we need to establish a federally chartered, fully independent not-for-profit corporation to operate and modernize our [air traffic control] services," House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a speech last June at the Aero Club of Washington. 

Critics of the proposal say it would amount to a privatization of the nation's air traffic control system. 

"While privatization supporters say their proposal will modernize the U.S. airspace, it appears their only focus is removing the organization’s funding from congressional oversight and empowering an unelected board to raise fees on the traveling public," Delta Senior Vice President for Flight Operations Capt. Steve Dickson wrote in an op-ed in Crain's New York last November. 

"Privatizing air-traffic control will not address structural issues that will always exist, such as the proximity of high-volume airports in the Northeast," he continued. "And there is no evidence from Nav Canada that privatization will improve operational reliability or the customer experience." 

The push to remove most facets of air traffic control from the FAA's purview comes amid a years-long effort by the agency to discard the World War II-era radar technology currently used to manage airplane traffic in favor of a new satellite-based system, known as NextGen.

The conversion has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and budget cutting in Washington, and supporters of the privatization proposal have said the FAA is ill-equipped to complete the project.

Most of the other major airlines are supporting the plan to create a new air traffic control organization that would be separate the FAA.

The group that lobbies in Washington for most major carriers besides Delta has rejected the idea that separating air traffic control from the FAA would amount to a privatization of the nation's flight navigation system. 

"Proponents of reform advocate for a not-for-profit organization that will be overseen by the FAA and governed by a board inclusive of all stakeholders, including employee unions, general aviation and private fliers, and passengers," said Airlines for America, which Delta was a member of until last year. 

"That’s the way air traffic services are run in most of the rest of the world," the group added in a recent statement. "We want to see more air traffic controllers hired. We want to make the system even more safe. And most importantly, we want to make flying better for the traveling public. Members of Congress should want the same thing.” 

Delta said Monday that it "agrees that improvements to our current air-traffic control system are needed," although it disagrees strongly with the approach of separating the management of U.S. flights from the FAA.  

“Great progress has already been made on this front through years of research and implementation of NextGen technologies and operational capabilities, and we need to focus on continuing this momentum," Dickson said. "Any effort to separate the ATO from the FAA will create a distraction that will set back these efforts for years.”