Many pilots and aircraft owners are very upset about the FAA’s new policy to charge EAA for controller expenses at Oshkosh. Virtually everyone who has emailed or posted a comment notes that we already pay specific aviation taxes as well as income tax that goes into the federal government general fund and that should cover the cost of controllers at Oshkosh.
It’s also true that nearly everyone who has commented negatively about the FAA policy of charging for ATC services also adds remarks about overall government waste and bloated budgets. It’s clear that many in aviation have lost faith in government, if they ever had faith to begin with.
So, I ask, is it time to privatize air traffic control? Several other countries already have. It would be the ultimate user fee because a private ATC system would need to operate at a profit to stay in business and each airplane owner would have to pay to keep the system up and running even if we don’t use all or most of the services.
About 15 years ago Canada changed from a tax-funded air traffic system to Nav Canada, a private sector corporation financed through publicly traded debt. Nav Canada operates the ATC centers, provides weather briefings, aeronautical information, and installs and maintains electronic navaids.
Nav Canada charges light piston airplane owners flat annual fees. Larger airplanes and jets pay more, and transport airplanes pay based on a formula of weight, distance in Canadian airspace and so on.
For the Canadian owner of a private airplane the annual Nav Canada charges are modest, no more than a few hundred dollars a year for a propeller airplane weighing less than 6,613 pounds max takeoff. That’s 3 metric tons in case you wonder about the odd number. The fee is less than one hundred bucks for piston airplanes less than 2 metric tons. There are extra daily charges for private piston airplanes to use Canada’s busiest airline airports but the fee is only about ten bucks. Many busy GA airports here, particularly in the northeast, already charge landing fees that are similar.
Under Nav Canada all Canadian GA piston airplane owners pay the annual fee if their airplane flies at all during the year and weighs more than 1,360 pounds. The fee is not higher or lower for VFR or IFR flying. The system of navaids, controller radar, weather briefing and so on is there so every aircraft owner except for LSA or lighter types pays to support it. Charges are more complicated, and higher, for jets of any weight.
When the Canadians were going through ATC privatization many of us in the U.S. were worried. I was afraid the system would turn out to be some fiendishly complex schedule of charges that would be expensive and overly complicated. Or that airliners and jets would get preference. But I turned out to be wrong.
When I fly to Canada I get a bill in the mail from Nav Canada for a flat fee that is good for the entire quarter of the year. I don’t remember the cost, but it was somewhere around $60. And that covered normal IFR flying in the system to as many airports in Canada as I wanted to go, except for the handful of busy airline airports.
Often I’m transiting Canadian airspace en route on east-west trips and am in Toronto air space for part of the trip but don’t land in Canada. In that case there is no charge from Nav Canada. And when flying in Nav Canada’s system I really can’t tell any difference from being in the FAA system.
Nav Canada brags that it has been able to hold its fees far below the overall inflation level, and hasn’t had a rate hike in years. Its fees for all users are significantly below comparable costs in other nations, and as far as I know Canadian aircraft operators of all types are reasonably happy with Nav Canada compared to the previous tax-based system.
What would you think of a Nav Canada style system here? We would pay, but we pay taxes now. There would also need to be a special fee for an event such as AirVenture Oshkosh because of the extra manpower required, but it could be a flat daily fee just like Nav Canada charges for a private airplane to use a big airline airport.
Nav Canada has earned a reputation for being nimble in terms of new technology, and responsive to people who use their system. That’s not what anybody would say about the FAA ATC system where every new program drags on for years, is over budget, and often is never completed.
I have reflexively been in favor of a taxpayer-funded ATC system because all citizens benefit from an air transportation system whether they fly or not. But now that the FAA is making charges for specific ATC services should we consider a system that charges for every service but doesn’t swallow up tax dollars? A concept that at least deserves some thought.