NextGen Program – Term Paper

3.2.1. Increase in Fatigue at Work

The FAA itself says that 14,000 controllers are in charge of the safety of almost 70,000 flights daily and 750 million passengers a year (2015). ATC work is a stressful job. Therefore, with a private system that will reduce the number of controllers, the work and stress of the remaining controllers will be doubled. As a result, the number of workers dealing with fatigue will increase. This is disastrous because fatigue reduces the brain’s capability to recall and remain focused. For a controller on duty, a good memory and capability to be focused are very important aspects. Fatigue is one of the major human factors that contribute to accidents and incidents in aviation. In the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study on approaches to reduce fatigue, Sumwalt (2008) says: “In fact, as Dr. Brenner from the Safety Board will say… in the last 15 years, fatigue has been associated with over 250 fatalities in air carrier accidents investigated by the Safety Board.” (p. 14). These are two-fifty fatalities with regular amount of controllers on duty. For that reason, once privatization reduces the number of the controllers operating and double the fatigue in the remaining workers, the number of fatalities due to fatigue will become more than two-fifty by year. In other words, the 750 million passengers who travel by air every year will be more exposed to accidents due to controller fatigue. 

3.4. Impact on NextGen Program

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The privatization of ATC operations will not make significant changes in the NextGen program implementation. This is because the primary purpose of NextGen program is to reduce flight delays in the air traffic system resulting from weather issues. Proponents of the privatization of ATC system, constantly point out that FAA has been spending too much in the NextGen program. According to the analysis in the article, “Update to the Business Case for the Next Generation Air Transportation System Based on the Future of the NAS Report”, all the money that has been provided from the government will be compensated. Eck (2016) affirms that:

By 2030, NextGen improvements are expected to deliver an overall benefit-to-cost ratio of 3.0-to-1, meaning every $1 invested in NextGen will deliver $3 of benefits. All implemented improvement costs have all been incurred; only ongoing operation costs remain. Likewise, most baselined improvements’ capital costs have been incurred and nearly half of the remaining future costs are also for operations, which are projected to return $65.1 billion in benefits (p. 20-21).

This analysis shows that all the money that has been spent in the NextGen operations will be reflected in the tripled benefits in 2030. Both the opponents and proponents agree that NextGen will have a significant impact in the ATC world. In fact, the main beneficiaries of this program will be passengers, air traffic controllers and airline workers. Usually, flight delays cause a lot of inconveniences to these three groups of people. ATC’s and Airline workers’ will have their work less stressful. Furthermore, this program is a change from radar-based system to a satellite-based system; hence it is normal to have such an amount in expenses. The FAA depends on annual budget appropriations from the Congress thus slowing down the accomplishment of the program. Nevertheless, it is not correct to assume that by having a private Air Traffic Control system, the program will be done earlier. Senators are yet to show accurate statistics which prove that their project will bring more benefits than FAA. A proposal that is going to impact the aviation system should bring these statistics to the table because the congress needs to preview the outcomes. In the article analysis mentioned above, there is tangible evidence of how it is going to be compensated. It will be an ineffective change to a private organization. It is clear that making Air Traffic Control System private is not worth it because it will increase costs, and will not help in the effective accomplishment of NextGen program. 

4. If Privatization Doesn’t Work as Expected

If the new private company fails, the privatization of ATC system operations will be a waste of time. In the business world, there is a term, “calm waters metaphor”, which commonly happens in private companies. According to DeCenzo in Pearson’s, this metaphor applies to a situation in which a company rarely changes, and it follows the sequence of:

When it unfreezes, a company is actually opening doors to allow for a change to take place. Next, the change starts to take place in the company, and finally, it refreezes; which means that the company will continue to be consistent, but differently, because it refreezes with the “changing” component (DeCenzo, n.d., p. 242). In the proposal for privatization, the private company that is to be in charge of the funds for the ATC system operations is Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP). The change will be the way ANSP will collect and manage the budget for the FAA. Consequently, every individual, from the controllers to the passengers, will need to accept the way ANSP will refreeze the ATC system operation because ANSP is considered as a private company. Kettl (2015) argues that “Congress desires it to be financially self-sustaining, but it has been prevented from taking money-saving measures, such as closing less-utilized local branches or moving into potentially profitable lines of business” (as cited in Sawicky, 2016, p. 10). In the words of Kettl, it is safe to say that Congress will have no authority to intervene in the ANSP financial plans since ANSP is considered as a private company, which is independent from the government. In addition, without congress authority to intervene in case of poor management, this will affect the way ATC system operation will be financially managed. Subsequently, it will reflect on air traffic controllers’ salaries. Controllers and passengers will feel this difference. ANSP, as stated in the Senators’ proposal, will work as a non-profit company that will fund the ATC system operation with tax revenues. As mentioned before, the number of passengers travelling by year according to FAA is 750 million, which boils down to 62.5 million passengers by month. This number of passengers will reduce because of tax increase that will be implemented by the ANSP to fund ATC system operations. After the number of passengers decrease, the ANSP will be unable to keep relying on tax revenues to support the ATC system. When private companies face this type of situation, they either reduce workforce hours (like FAA did in 2013 with controllers), or plan their exit strategy (which was not presented in the proposal). The reduction of workforce hours by ANSP will be a convenient step because this would give them some stability, just like the FAA did before. Unfortunately, the primary purpose congress decided to privatize ATC system operations was to avoid these furloughed situations in aviation again due to an unstable budget. The only difference between what happened in 2013 and what will happen after privatization is that, in 2013 the FAA only needed to wait for congress to change their mind and pass the extended bill, while the ANSP cannot wait for congress to pass any bill because they are an independent company.

6. The FAA Contribution on Development of Air Traffic Control  

The NextGen program (mentioned in section 3.4.) is not the only program that the FAA has been working on. While the NextGen is still in progress, the FAA has worked and already implemented several other programs such as Required Navigation Performance (RNP), Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM), and En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). All these programs have significantly contributed to passengers’ safety and made the controllers’ work easier. A controller without a RNP system implemented in an aircraft would need to stay more time in a frequency, talking to a pilot to receive a precision location of the aircraft. 

The implementation of RVSM is another system that came to help controllers work by creating more room for more aircrafts to be handled in the same chunk of space and at the same time. Without the RVSM, controllers would not have more efficient routes than they used to have before. In 2015, the FAA implemented the ERAM. This system allows controllers to work with several pilots at the same time (Delta, 2016, p. 4). These programs are less than half of the programs that FAA has been creating throughout the years. They contributed for 26.5 takeoffs in USA in 2014, as demonstrated in the diagram below.

source:T. (2016, February 1). Percentage of Global Takeoffs, 2014 [Digital image]. Retrieved November 5, 2016, from http://news.delta.com/sites/default/files/The Costs of Privatizing Air Traffic Control.pdf

This diagram shows the results of FAA innovative programs. The FAA programs are a non-stop sequence of improvements and the principal beneficiaries are the controllers because they are the ones who need to deal with these programs every day as they work. The recognition of FAA work towards the innovation of air traffic in USA is noticed not only by the opponents of the privatization, but also by the proponents of this proposal (Delta 2016, p. 4). If air traffic control is in the hands of a federal agency, who have been showing a significant improvement in the ATC system and considered as one of the safest aviation agency in the world by the government accountability, then they need to keep handling the ATC system. A privatization is not a simple change. After privatization is approved by Congress, the programs will no longer be developed by the FAA agency, yet it is an agency that has been showing unparalleled capability of developing and implementing these programs. The same study even adds that “The FAA’s ATC oversight includes approximately 30 million square miles of airspace…That airspace includes all of the US, large portions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico” (Delta, 2016, pp.3). Taking the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf airspace and putting it in the hands of ANSP is tantamount to risking the lives of thousands of people. Let the data speak for itself. In the diagram, the United States represents 26.5 in terms of takeoff. The 26.5 is not even a triple of the 3.6 represented by Canada; considering that Canada at that time had their air traffic control system privatized.