Europe: The Case Against ATC Privatization

The mail here in Spain is a bit slow; thus, I get my AOPA Pilot magazine much later than in the United States, allowing for matters of aviation public discourse to blow over before I can offer my expatriate perspective. In the case of ATC privatization in the United States, I figured the proposal would evaporate, and ignored it, except for one sentence written by Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA, Chairman of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), who is pushing an ATC privatization effort: “While separating air traffic services from the safety regulator is commonplace and a best practice worldwide…” The words “best practice” have been ringing in my head for a few months, and I can’t forget them as I continue to experience some of the most ridiculous aviation shenanigans flying in Europe.

While separation of ATC from aviation authorities happens with some frequency, it is not unilateral here in Europe. Eurocontrol’s list of air traffic service providers indicates that the list is mixed where ATC is split off from regulatory agencies in Europe. As for the statement that this is somehow best practice, I will share a recent experience dealing with privatized ATC and privatized airport management in Spain, and allow the facts to speak for themselves.

Before I begin, I will note that Spain’s privatization structure is unique in that it represents the purity of a private for-profit entity mixed with a publicly owned hybrid corporation that purportedly represents the public’s interest over shareholders. This is the model that is being promoted in the United States: a non-governmental, hybrid, semi-profit interest entity split off from the FAA. ENAIRE is owned by the Spanish government, and is a separate corporation that is charged with all Spanish ATC services. ENAIRE, in turn, owns a 51% stake in AENA, which is an airport management firm that handles just about everything in passenger terminals and all towered airports in Spain, as well as performing similar services in many other countries. The rest of AENA ownership is publicly traded, which in theory makes this structure the absolute golden child of the privatization model: public interest mixed with the beauty and efficiency of free market capitalism.

My flight in question took me to Reus airport in Spain, situated outside of Tarragona. I intended to photograph the rice fields and salt ponds of the Ebro River Delta, as they are in prime season in the middle of summer. The day was fresh and cool in the mountains, with a Chinook (föhn in Europe) wind off the coastal hills, creating hot and dry conditions with a land breeze blowing Saharan dust and Mediterranean humidity out to sea. In other words, it was as good as it was going to get given that the delta is only green in the heat of summer, when haze is usually awful. I had made arrangements to meet up with an Irishman at the flying club in Reus for refueling, where we would fly together around the delta, and then I would refuel again for the flight home to the Pyrenees. While I do not like towered fields, I figured the minor amount of aggravation was worth it.

I had no idea what kind of nonsense I was getting into.

La Cerdanya, with strong mountain waves over the Pyrenees.

Muntanyes de Prades, coastal hills creating Chinook/föhn effect at the coast.

Waiting way too long for fuel. AENA: “We have jets. We don’t need you.”


Clearance to land was standard procedure into Reus, a single runway airport with some basic jet service for passengers and a small terminal. The Irishman had arranged “stand 34” for fueling, something I found odd, though I made a point to tell the tower I had a reserved stand for fueling, for which I was directed to follow the marshaller (wondering how much this would cost) to stand….13, one mile from stand 34. What followed was 15 minutes of phone calls and radio calls back and forth between the marshaller, operations, and the fuel truck, alternating between granting the approval for stand 34, back to staying at stand 13, to 34, to 13, and eventually… I waited 30 minutes in the sweltering heat, for which a fuel truck arrived at stand 13. After 15 minutes of filling out paperwork, I received fuel, and then had to wait another 15 minutes to complete payment: $14.26/gallon, and it took 90 minutes in baking heat for this nonsense. I then had to contact the tower for permission to taxi to the flying club, where the Irishman awaited near the gate, as AENA had designated the flying club outside of the security zone, requiring a motorized gate to access the taxiways.

I went in to the aero club to file my flight plan, as Spanish rules require a flight plan for all flights interacting with a control zone. I also filed the flight plan for later in the day for the return home, to make things simpler. Nowhere in this entire process did anyone mention a landing fee, and at this point, I was so annoyed that it was the airport’s problem if they didn’t communicate where to pay one, if it existed.

Departure consisted of taxiing over one mile, as the tower would not approve a takeoff at the B intersection (with half of the enormous runway), resulting in oil temps climbing from 100F to 160F by takeoff. Thankfully I was climbing only to 1000 feet AGL, so overheat would not be a concern, which it often is crossing mountainous terrain in the summer.

The flight itself was easy enough, as it was in uncontrolled airspace for the most part: two and a half hours of flying over the Mediterranean coast, and then back to Reus. Traffic was only mildly busy, with three airplanes at most in the circuit at any point, and a 737 lining up for a long approach. The winds were favoring runway 07, though the tower chose 25 out of convenience for the jets, creating a slight tailwind in a relatively stiff crosswind configuration. It was right on the border of the maximum I was willing to accept, and after the landing, I promised I wouldn’t do one again. There is a reason quartering tailwinds are a bad thing – they are unsafe, though the tower did not seem accommodating, and I was not in the mood to ask and get placed in a holding pattern for 20 minutes.
Costa Dorada, Spain

Heading out to sea to avoid nuclear power plant. 

Approaching the Delta.

Mussel harvesting.

Rice paddies.

Western end of the Delta – very similar to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Salt evaporation ponds.

Delta, again.

Apparently a sod farm.

Terminus of Ebro River, in infrared.

Terminus of Ebro River, visible spectrum.

Tarragona, Spain – old city. Note amphitheater in the coastal center. They are Roman ruins, as Tarragona was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire.

This time, I taxied right to the flying club, where we decided to arrange for fuel from there instead of while baking on the tarmac. As I was introduced to various flying club staff, I was told that the operations desk tried to cancel my flight plan due to nonpayment of a landing fee, and the flying club had stopped it for our prior flight, telling them that a member was onboard and it was a flying club flight. According to the lady behind the desk, this is the first time they had ever heard of such a thing. Basically, they would have cancelled the flight plan and the tower would have told me to taxi back, power down, and go in the office to pay. Excuse me, but where do I pay this fee? It involved a half mile walk, on a busy highway, outside the airport, back in via the passenger terminal, up an elevator, down a maze of corridors, to a room where three people were doing busy work, all in sweltering heat. The bill: $46.49 for two landings. Recall that nowhere was I told that there was a fee – not in the ENAIRE guide for the airport, not by the marshaller, not the fuel attendant, nor the tower. Even worse, the location to pay was simply impossible to find without hand holding by a kind soul, and even then, can we not see the punishment taking place? Obviously general aviation is not wanted.

I asked operations to delay my flight plan, as I was now in risk of cancellation, and had not fueled. It was 6:15PM, 45 minutes after landing. Surely 6:45PM should be enough, with an additional 30 minutes before it is cancelled?

From the flying club, stand 31 was reserved (there were no airplanes in any stands), and the Irishman walked out to open the gate so I could taxi and then park, standing in my required safety vest, which only made a hot day hotter. As I taxied by, a Frenchman was waiting near the gate for it to be opened so his friend could eventually taxi through, and he so poignantly stated: “This place sucks.”

I was assured by the flying club and the Irishman that fuel would be quick, as the fuel service promised it. I did not see a fuel truck for 45 minutes. I called the tower to delay my flight plan, again, and the tower told me to talk to operations. I asked the tower handle it, as by this point I was irritated, sunburned, hot, and at risk of not being able to get home by sundown. After calling operations multiple times, the fuel truck finally came, which meant 15 minutes of paperwork. I asked why there was paperwork, as I just did it earlier in that day, and the excuse was that his colleague “had not done it properly and now he has to enter it in the computer.” I asked why he had to enter it in the computer, as I have filled up at two other airports serviced by this company and clearly it was in one of the computers because I was charged on both my MasterCard and German Air BP card on the last fuel stop, even though I did not furnish my Air BP card.  “Yes, I see you filled up at Castellon, as its in here.” “Then why are you entering it again?” “Because I have to.” I expressed my discontent with how long I had been waiting, how long it took for him to show up, and how close I was to missing the flight home, and asked what he was doing for 45 minutes, as he clearly wasn’t filling up other airplanes. He insisted he only got one call and came running over, for which I asked why the tower, operations, and the flying club all confirmed they had relayed the request for fuel. “That’s AENA” was the reply I got.

After round one of the paperwork and my total lack of diplomacy was complete, along with turning the pump on, pulling out the ladder, and suiting up, the attendant looked at the tires and said, “I can’t fuel without wheel chocks!” “Wheel chocks? What are you talking about?” “I can’t fuel this plane without chocks!” “Do you have any?” “No.” “What kind of retarded thing is this? I didn’t need them earlier or at any other airport serviced by this company.” “They all did it wrong. I must have wheel chocks.” At this point, I turned into the ugly American that so stereotypically ruins it for everyone and unleashed a venomous vitriol (in Spanish), dramatically pulled out my portable aluminum wheel chocks, childishly slammed in them into the tires and told him: “There are your [insert uncouth descriptor] wheel chocks! Now fill up this [I won’t repeat it] airplane! This is the most incompetent crap I have ever dealt with, I am paying a personal record for avgas, and I am about to miss my chance to make it home!” Now actually aware there might be consequences for incompetence, the excuses started rolling out as the avgas was transferred into the tank, about how he is only doing his job, and so on, and he got quiet when my searing death glare was pointed at him. I waited another 15 minutes for the payment process, and got the heck out of there, barely making it home before sunset.

$14.26/gallon. 4 hours to fuel twice. $46.49 in fees. It took 9 hours to fly 75 miles, fuel, fly 2.5 hours, fuel, and fly 75 miles home, at a cost of nearly $300… a Cub that burns 4.2gph at full cruise. That flight would have cost $100 in America, and would have taken a little over 5 hours instead of 9.

Awaiting takeoff after second fueling. By now, the romance is gone.

Catalunya – on the way home as the sun is beginning to set. Infrared.

I am going to have to clear those clouds somehow with marginal daylight and poor flight service options. This is why I tried to leave hours earlier!

Around the clouds, up over an 8,500′ ridge, and we’re in La Cerdanya, where AENA has no influence.

This is not the only incident with AENA. Barcelona airport, the second largest airport in Spain, has had a scourge of up to 4 hours of security delays for passenger screening, for months on end, because they haven’t figured out how to schedule enough security staff. After grueling transatlantic crossings, passengers have had to wait up to 3 hours to clear customs, and AENA’s response to not scheduling enough officers is that ENAIRE did not tell them flights were coming into Barcelona. Recall that ENAIRE owns a majority interest in AENA, and AENA is publicly traded with accountability to public shareholder money.

ENAIRE controllers can make north of $200,000 per year in salaries. One group or another of AENA staff is on strike roughly 40% of the time my wife and I use Barcelona airport, including this week, where security staff have decided to strike, making hours long delays worse. This is international “best practice” where a special purpose entity separates ATC and airport management from the safety regulator, and where free market forces keep incompetence in check.

Supporters of ATC privatization would likely point out that this is simply a Spanish aberration. While culture is a factor in all countries, Spain is the most visited country in Europe, and the forces of global and European capitalism, much less publicly traded scrutiny and European heavy handed regulation have not been able to curtail the sheer stupidity. Germany has privatized ATC and flight service, and while they are organized, landing fees are high, iPad navigation services from all providers are expensive due to fees to DFS (German ATC provider) as sectional maps are not in the public domain, and flight service comes with a fee. I suggest reading prior blog posts to understand how Germany restricts freedom in other ways. France manages ATC through their civil aviation authority, and they are the nicest and most accommodating country I have flown in Europe so far. Yes, the French, who supposedly hate Americans, do everything they can, without fees, to accommodate an American barreling through their country in an N-registered airplane without speaking a word of French. The only I time I have been told “no” by French ATC is when my request conflicts with military operations.

Free market economics cannot punish Spanish stupidity, and civil aviation authorities managing ATC in France overcomes a prejudicial disdain for Americans. That should tell you something about the nature of these aviation management structures.

I should also point out that Europeans speak of American aviation as the best in the world, stated as a universally acknowledged fact. The rest of the world is looking to us as the model, and now there is a political movement brewing to copy global incompetence and stamp out American aviation supremacy. I don’t understand it.

There is also the matter, assuming this change would go through, of the economics. Privatizing a vast section of publicly-owned American assets demands the question of what they are worth. If a maximum price is earned during a sale to do the American people justice (as well as pad the federal budget), then the high amount of capital invested by shareholders will demand a competitive rate of return, determined by the marketplace, which will have to be recouped from consumers of the National Airspace System. That can only mean increased fees, which is unlikely to be offset by cost savings of such miraculous quantity necessary to equalize the difference. If, on the other hand, this section of the NAS is auctioned off at below market price, how can that be justified to the American people?

There is a misconception about Europe, particularly in America, that it is a quasi-communist nanny state with extremely high taxes and extreme government control, where basic needs are spoon fed to the masses. What people fail to realize is the privatization model is more prevalent here, especially with roads. In America, most roads are free of tolls. For me to drive to Barcelona and back to take a commercial flight, road tolls are in excess of $50. To cross France in a passenger car from Germany and return home costs over $150. These are free market private concessions, operating on the privatization efficiency model, and the fees are astronomical. Europe is filled with these kinds of structures, and anywhere they creep up in aviation, there is one surefire reality: high user fees and poor service.

Free market efficiencies from private industry require competition and a sufficient liquidity of customer base in order to engage the Corporate Maturity Cycle and push down prices. Concessions for commercial aviation offer no such competition, as we can see with the recent scourge of FBOs charging silly fees, and also with our case study of AENA. There is one AENA, and they simply don’t care. Secondly, general aviation will always have a fractional share of passenger traffic and flight operations relative to airline travel, which means that the volume of GA activities is inadequate to furnish cost savings, much less competition. Prices would only go up, access to GA would be restricted, or both. This is the reality of free market forces on public service in general aviation.

America is a world leader in publicly-owned national resources. National parks, roads, airports, coasts, much of the West, national forests, our airspace, and the like is owned by the public, with no fee for use for much of it, and that’s that. In my opinion, it is the vastness and open access to our national wealth that makes America “free” as we know it. To follow the model of densely populated nations with privatization models would give us the results that these nations have.

What I would suggest instead is that any lawmaker who is a pilot and thinks copying the European model is good thing come over here, rent a plane, and try to fly 500 miles in the land of “best practice” and see if they are still willing to sign their name to such an ill-founded and flawed idea.



Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at


  1. Thank you, can’t agree with you more. I witnessed how privatization of ATC and Airports destroyed private aviation in South Africa – the privatized ATC company forced the civil aviation to force all airfields to use ATC – those who could not afford it had to shut down. The net result was more than half the private and municipal airports had to close down. The whole country benefits by State run ATC – private ATC pushes up costs and reduces efficiency because it’s a single provider of services (read no competition) – in the end it becomes expensive for everyone because airlines simply pass the cost onto with more expensive air tickets and freight charges. My suggestion is to fight against it – it’s very hard to reverse once changed.

    • Thank you very much for saying exactly but in much better words what I have been saying for over 10 years. I fly in Switzerland and we have the same experiences as you have. One time on an IFR flight plan with an XL2 from Cannes to Geneva, Eurocontrol wanted to toute us via Bruxelles. We went VFR, direct and less troublesome. Switzerland is not too bad but landing fees are everywhere with a minimum of 18CHF I believe and if you try Geneva, Zurich as a GA pilot you are treated as if you have the plague. Like you said they have jets that brings more revenue than we do. The only mistake is that Jets are still a minority and if we had more GA flight hours, we would bring more in revenues. Let’s hope that the US is smart enough to destroy that insanity that is user fees or ATC privatization. Big business is never good. Small business is better and is what aviation was founded upon.

  2. Thanks for this eye-opener. All I hear are tales of woe from this over-regulated and – news to me – over-privatized cluster…

  3. I could not agree more with Garrett; his experiences with Spanish ATC/FBOs is a good example OF the inefficencies and huge service fees of privatized ATC services which are so prevalent all over Europe.
    The US is well advised to keep their current ATC system which is clearly the best in the world; and their politicians should take a fist hand look at Europe’s privatized ATC system before suggesting that the US adopt such a model !

  4. Garrett – I sympathise with you about your horrendous experiences and operational inefficiency during what should have been a great flight over wonderful countryside not far from my own adopted home. However, I need to correct a few inaccuracies in your arguments against ATC privatisation.

    ENAIRE controllers cannot make north of 200k. Back in late 2010, there were examples of sharp practices regarding sickness and overtime misuse which did result in outrageous annual take home packages for a number of individuals. Considering the country was in the grip of the global financial crisis, the Spanish public and Government agreed that this was unacceptable, and the decision was made to partially privatise ATC services.

    That is why, today, ENAIRE are no longer responsible for provision of ATC services at all Spanish airports. 12 airports have services provided by two private companies, SAERCO and FerroNATS. As a result, for example, the reduction in the cost of providing air traffic control services at the towers managed by FerroNATS has exceeded 50% in some instances.

    The ATM Cost-Effectiveness report published by EUROCONTROL in 2009 had highlighted that ATCO employment costs per ATCO hour in Spain were well above the sector average: €193 compared to the European average of €98 (97% higher). On average, FerroNATS’s costs are now in line with the European average, helping to partially correct Spain’s gap in this respect.

    Having worked in publicly and privately managed ATC around the world for 30 years, I have to argue that the introduction of competition, if crucially framed by adequate regulation and supervision, is actually for the benefit of all airspace users.

    • Thanks for the additional info about Spanish ATC.

      Privatization without competition is effectively a monopoly, which is what the proposal in the USA wishes to achieve: basically ENAIRE and nothing more. In any location where competition is introduced, prices equalize into a market norm. The problem is, the proposal in America is to “get rid of the FAA in ATC” not to “introduce competition,” as ATC would be under one nebulous organization (the irony is also that the FAA has, and may still, use some contract tower facilities already). The argument is also against the user fee model, as this is a first step. The presence of incremental user fees is not necessarily equal to competition (AENA, anyone?), and takes advantage of the monopolistic position ATC, FBOs, and avgas suppliers have.

      I think most pilots would agree that more service providers are better across the spectrum in aviation. That boils down to broader macro issues of declining pilot population, high airplane manufacturing costs, airport closures, and the like.

      Our concern in the USA is that an entrenched user fee model kills of general aviation volume, which reinforces the monopolistic aviation model, which leads to a death spiral of price increases and collapse of general aviation.

      • I agree that privatisation without competition is simply the creation of a monopoly, which is not acceptable. However, from my reading the proposals, it is not seeking to privatise air traffic control, but instead create a federally chartered non-profit corporation to run the country’s ATC system.

        The proposal is not contemplating outsourcing or selling the organization to a private, profit focused company, although it will maintain responsibility for the contract tower program that you mention in your response. Therefore, corporatisation is a more appropriate description than privatisation.

        Separation of service provision and regulation is a globally accepted principle in all safety critical sectors, to remove conflicts of interest and ensure there is a properly focused delivery organization, subject to appropriate oversight. So from that perspective, I think the proposals are a good idea.

        At a time when traffic continues to grow, the capabilities of new technology must be fully exploited in order to accommodate the rapidly changing operating environment, including the potential integration of remotely piloted vehicles. Decision support tools, capacity management systems, improved data displays, and in-built safety nets all allow additional traffic to be handled by controllers.

        This requires investment, with associated long-term planning and financing, which is impossible to achieve if, as up until recently, the FAA has to rely on an average of five temporary funding bills a year. Again, from this perspective, I am positive about the proposals.

        Where I am less enthusiastic is with respect to the proposed composition of the board and steering board, where in an attempt to satisfy all stakeholders, and ensure no-one has too much influence, a massive committee is being contemplated which I fear will never gain traction.

        Another area that needs more thought is the arrangements for the important safety and economic oversight of the new corporation. A strong delivery organisation will potentially be a huge benefit to the U.S., its aviation sector, and the wider economy.

        However, this potential will only be achieved with a complementary regulator, appropriately and transparently funded, and with the skills and capabilities to challenge and support the provider where appropriate, and fully protect the needs of users, such as the important general aviation community.

Comments are closed.