PITFALLS OF AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL PRIVATIZATION Introduction This brief paper is a critical review and analysis of an article on the pitfalls of the air traffic control privatization as advocated by certain groups of people. It was written by Professor Elliott Sclar of Columbia University in behalf of and commissioned by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. This short paper analyzes the contents of the said article especially on its use of binaries and oppositional stance in the argumentation to propound a point and make a stand on a crucial issue such as the privatization of a critical national security function.
The said article is in general against the idea of privatizing the air traffic control function of government. Discussion Privatization has become a buzzword among business proponents or groups who are of the opinion that this is the best way to improve certain governmental functions and services. It has become a trend in view of limited budgets and other constraints which implied bureaucracy in government has caused the deterioration in the delivery of critical government public services. Privatization has worked wonders in many areas where previously governmental services were turned over to private entities for them to turn a profit and become self-sustaining enterprises.
It has become preferred mode of many government units and agencies to turn around the situation but there are some limits to this alternative because certain government functions ought to stay with the government for various concerns such as security, safety and regulatory purposes. It is not only profits or efficiency that should be used as sole criteria in determining whether options or proposals of privatization are to be accepted with alacrity.
Air traffic control work, by its very nature, is one governmental service that does not lend itself easily to privatization. The control of the American airspace, as presently performed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is imbued with an “inherently governmental” status by the very nature of work that entails security and safety of all air travel within the United States of America. It is not one of those government functions which can be easily privatized because there are many factors this function implies in terms of national security in view of continuing terrorist threats of attack.
The author made use of the term “inherently governmental” without seeing the need to define it further, as he assumes any reader can understand it, being obviously self-evident in its meaning. The usual justifications or rationale used by privatization proponents are the criteria of price (cost minimization through improved efficiency), hastening the speed of modernization (through adoption of costly new, cutting edge or state-of-the-art technologies) and the stability of funding sources (it will no longer rely on government revenue support but becomes a sustainable private enterprise with an assured income stream) but a sad experience of three quite prominent international privatizations suggest otherwise.
The stated goals of privatization as stated above in no way materialized as expected as demonstrated in cases of Australia, Canada and Great Britain where air traffic control services failed to live up to their expectations as claimed by proponents. Inability of the private air traffic controller (ATC) monopolies necessitates a serious re-evaluation of the whole idea of privatization as a viable undertaking (Sclar, 2003, p.
4). Ideas of privatizing important government functions like air traffic control does not translate to a better service delivery environment because many factors are involved in such a crucial undertaking. It assumes a lot of variables can be controlled like in a competitive corporate environment which is not the case here, as evidenced by the adverse results of privatization in those three countries. The author had made liberal use of binaries in his argumentation through negative or positive aspects of the privatization idea but within this context, he obviously made more use of the negative side to expound on the dangers of adopting privatization without any due thought.
It makes any reader get away with the impression that privatization is a totally unacceptable idea in terms of air traffic control. In this regard, there is a slight hint of impropriety because only most of the negative aspects were given prominence in the discussions although these were backed up by data. However, it can be said that selective use of data to suit the author's objectives of trying to persuade the reader that privatization is not appropriate smacks of some bias or preference.
A probable use of another type of binary would be juxtaposing privatization with any other means of improving the air traffic control functions without necessarily resorting to idea of privatizing right away as the only means available to government policy makers to improve this vital government service. In fact, Prof. Sclar pointed out himself that enhanced performance can still be achieved through an internal re-organization of the FAA as long as there is a management and labor “buy-in” (another term which the author had not bothered to explain in greater detail). For those not very familiar with the term, it simply means both top management and labor are all convinced of the necessity to institute organizational changes to avoid any resistance that can sabotage or compromise these change efforts during its implementation.
As pointed out by the professor, successful re-organization processes cannot be imposed from the outside; it is a wrong notion to think that privatization as a panacea can solve all problems like a magic wand or an undue focus on privatization serves like a blinder because it detracts from the range of all the alternatives available for a more comprehensive solution to a multi-faceted problem (ibid.
p. 32). Another example of the author's use of binaries is the discussion on the demand and supply side of air travel. The demand comes from population growth, state of the economy, the safety concerns with regards to terrorism and the de-regulation of the airline industry. The supply side of the discussion included factors shaping the system's capacity to accommodate air travel.
Again, the author-professor had highlighted mostly the negative side of both sides of air travel to relay the impression that privatization is a blunt instrument for organizational change and would rather opt for continual and incremental improvements (ibid. p. 8). Use of terms like the “yellow pages” merely serves to underscore why privatization of ATC cannot succeed and enhance views that privatization is not appropriate for ATC, it being an “inherently governmental” function. Rather than using binaries to make an argument and see things strictly in black and white only, it is vital to know there is a range of alternative solutions available for consideration.
Public agencies like FAA are not as bureaucratic as commonly thought and are more amenable to change and improvements as long as the problem to be solved is clearly specified (ibid. ) and this was proven in the case of the establishment of an “Air Traffic Organization” or ATO within FAA (ibid. p. 14). In general, the author used the oppositional stance of labor unions against the ideas of privatization due to concerns of job preservation (Kikeri, 1998, p.
21) and other matters such as longer working hours and less employee benefits which often led to strike disruptions. Conclusion Privatization is not a suitable option for air traffic control because it is imbued with a crucial function pertaining to security and safety of air travel. It is not right for the government to abdicate its regulatory function to private entities when options are available to improve services and it is difficult to establish its true cost (pricing) when bidding it out (Winston, 2010, p.
98). Reference List Kikeri, S. (1998). Privatization and labor unions: what happens to workers when governments divest? Washington, DC, USA: World Bank Publications. Sclar, E. (2003, February). Pitfalls of air traffic control privatization. White Plains, NY, USA: The HDR Management Consulting Group. Winston, C. (2010). Last exit: privatization and deregulation of the U. S. transportation system. Washington, DC, USA: Brookings Institution Press.