Home Commentary and Analysis Should Air Traffic Control Be Turned Over to Private Companies?
Should Air Traffic Control Be Turned Over to Private Companies?

Should Air Traffic Control Be Turned Over to Private Companies?

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By Dr. Suzanne Minarcine
Faculty Director, School of Business at American Public University

Airline pilots spend countless hours training to handle extraordinary and potentially catastrophic incidents such as the situation that took place in January 2017. The pilots of a chartered Bombardier Challenger 604 jet faced an extreme and potentially deadly situation over the Arabian Sea about 500 miles from land, when they encountered what is known as wake turbulence from a nearby Airbus A380 Superjumbo Jet.

The two aircraft passed within 1,000 feet of each other vertically, with the A380 slightly to the right of the Challenger. This degree of separation was certainly in accordance with the aircraft separation safety requirements established by aviation authorities.

In only 48 seconds after the two aircraft passed one another in mid-air, the A380 was already 15 miles away. However, the Challenger pilots lost control of their aircraft and plummeted 11,000 feet.

The aircraft rolled no fewer than five times. The severe turbulence disengaged the autopilot and violently shook the aircraft, causing a failure of the flight management systems and the attitude indicators.

Due to the violence of the upset, headsets and reference handbooks flew around the cockpit. The pilot later explained that he used clouds to right the aircraft, since the sky and the ocean were both so blue they were indistinguishable from one another.

Several passengers and the flight attendant were injured in this 17-minute wake turbulence encounter. Four of the six passengers and the flight attendant were standing at the time.

Despite her injuries, the flight attendant used the first aid kit on board and attended to the passengers. Once the aircraft was stabilized, an emergency was declared and the aircraft deviated to the nearest airport.  The upset was so violent that the aircraft had to be declared a total loss.

Wake Turbulence Is More Common on Approaches and Landings

Avoidance of wake turbulence, which cannot be seen by pilots or detected on their radar, is addressed in pilot training from the private pilot level through airline transport ratings. There are frequent refresher courses that must be completed at least every two years.

The Challenger-A380 incident was the first clearly defined wake turbulence episode involving a business jet at cruise altitude. Wake turbulence is more common on approaches and landings. The last known fatality of a business jet due to wake turbulence occurred in 1993 in Santa Ana, California, when a Westwind jet was brought down by a Boeing 757.

Wake turbulence is the result of the wings of the aircraft producing lift and it varies according to the weight and atmospheric conditions.  Wake turbulence encounters are rare and unusual but the Challenger/Airbus event emphasizes the need for continued awareness and more advanced systems because spacing between aircraft is often managed by air traffic control. While air traffic increases every year, the amount of airspace remains the same and the skies have become increasingly crowded.

Commercial air carriers have praised the recent discussions about privatizing air traffic control. However, the business community and 16 associations representing general aviation have harshly criticized the privatization idea.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) disputed President Trump’s claims that the air traffic control system is “an ancient, broken, horrible system that doesn’t work.” While the system does need upgrading, the suggestion to impose user fees to pay for private companies to operate the system will harm general aviation and pose financial barriers to pilot training.

Pilot shortages are estimated to exceed 20,000 over the next five years, and the imposition of user fees could make flight training cost-prohibitive.

Privatization of Air Traffic Control Likened to ‘the Fox Guarding the Hen-house’

According to AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker, the general aviation industry employs more than one million people and contributes more than $200 billion to the U.S. economy. The suggestion that airspace be controlled by the airlines has been compared to “the fox guarding the hen-house,” as control of air traffic would be given to the major airlines.

Highly trained pilots and air traffic controllers are critically important to aviation safety. Electronics companies and aviation manufacturers are working on improved systems to monitor traffic and detect potential wake turbulence situations sooner. A safe and efficient air transportation system includes general and business aviation, commercial airlines, manufacturers and air traffic control.

Modernization of the air traffic control system should be done strategically and thoughtfully. The people responsible for changing the air traffic control system must look toward the future and the potential impact privatization might have on all users, not just airline transport.

About the Author

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine is the faculty director for the School of Business at American Public University. She currently teaches strategic management and entrepreneurship courses. Dr. Minarcine is also a retired airline pilot, and is currently a flight instructor.

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