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The Big Lie: ATC Stuck in the 1960s

The debate on so-called “ATC privatization” is not a new one. A Google search of the phrase yields 171,000 results, many of them news articles going back more than a quarter century.

AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and most other alphabet groups are pushing back against the most recent iteration of this idea, probably because of the current administration’s support for the concept and the feeling that unsteady funding from Congress is causing some people to take another look at it.

I’m highly opposed to privatization for a number of reasons. In general, I prefer a competitive marketplace where possible, as this provides the best product at the lowest price for the consumer. But there are some areas where multiple vendors just aren’t an option. Air traffic control, it seems to me, is one of those. But I’ll leave the argument against ATC privatization to the pros. The folks at AOPA, EAA, etc. have articulated that far better than I ever could.

What I’m concerned about right now is the patently false idea that air traffic control in this country is somehow mired in the 1960s. I’ve read recent articles from the Reason Foundation, Steve Forbes (who, as a major user of general aviation, ought to know better), the Orange County Register, and a number of other publications proffering this claim. It’s fake news – demonstrably false. Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.

I spent the early part of the 1980s living in Alaska, frequently hanging out at the Anchorage ARTCC because my cousin worked there. I used to take flight data progress strips off the huge dot matrix printers and put them in those little plastic holders and run them to the various sectors. I saw the vacuum tube powered computer equipment they were using. I flew with my cousin in those round gauge equipped airplanes, and marveled at the sophistication of Silver Crown avionics.

Today? Visit any Center and you’ll find modern computers have replaced all that old stuff. From trainers to airliners, we’re flying almost exclusively based on satellite navigation. That didn’t even exist in the early 80s, let alone the 1960s! Our airways were defined solely by ground-based navaids. VOR navigation was a luxury, and NDB usage was ubiquitous. People were still flying around using four course ranges!

Today, T and Q routes are rapidly supplanting the old stuff. When I’m up high enough to get over traffic, I will often be cleared direct from coast to coast. That would’ve been impossible in the 1960s.

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Our arrival and departure procedures are optimized for routing and traffic. We’ve got radius-to-fix segments on approaches, satellite overlays for many of the remaining ground-based procedures, and even GPS-based precision approaches which require almost no equipment beyond that which exists in orbit.

As I understand it, air traffic control weather radar, to the extend they had it 50 years ago, was a marginal mish-mash of green shades providing information which was difficult to interpret and limited in scope. Today they’re using ASR and NEXRAD-derived WARP systems which provide infinitely better weather data to controllers and, by extension, aviators. Heck, over the past 20 years I’ve noticed the marked improvement in the way controllers are able to route traffic around weather. They aren’t doing that with divining rods.

Back then, ATC’s radar network was limited and ground based. That system is being replaced by satellite-based ADS-B technology which provides better coverage, faster updates, and many other benefits – including traffic and weather data beamed directly into the cockpit.

The list goes on and on. How about the ATC towers? We’re starting to utilize “remote” towers which don’t even require the physical presence of a controller at the airport. Would that have been possible in the 1960s? Of course not.

Let’s talk about filing flight plans. In the 1960s, you had to physically go to an airport to visit a weather specialist to find out what Mother Nature was doing. Then you’d write out a flight plan by hand on a piece of paper and give it to the FSS specialist, who would do… well, something with it. Within a half hour, you might be able to obtain your clearance. That was pretty speedy for 1960!

Today, you get all that information on a smartphone and can file a flight plan with that same app. I’ve seen a clearance show up within 30 seconds after filing. Part of that is due to the advance of computer technology, but a big piece of it is also the way our ATC system is able to interact with the modern internet. From NOTAM and weather dissemination to airspace design, virtually nothing of the old system is still in use. VHF voice communication represents one of the few exceptions, but even that is being supplanted, especially on oceanic routes.

The bottom line here is that our air traffic control system is NOT stuck in the 1960s. Those who believe it is should talk to a few pilots and controllers. Sure, we have plenty of traffic delays in aviation. Much of that is due to weather – something no ATC “reform” is going to fix. The rest of the congestion is due to a lack of runway and airport capacity. Remember all those airports which were closed? They were called “relievers” for a reason. All those runway and airport expansion ideas which were quashed? You see the result every time you’re #10 in line for departure at a major airport.

Equating delays with ATC is as illogical as claiming the freeways are congested because of faded highway signage. If people want to support ATC “privatization,” I can respect that viewpoint. But letting hyperbole, sensationalism, and misinformation into the conversation serves us all poorly.

If you want to look at facts — and I hope you do — then the answer is clear: America’s air traffic control system is the largest, safest, most efficient, and modern one on Earth.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

17 Comments

  1. ATC shouldn’t be mended, it should be ended. For a short while I was on a committee 20 years ago that eventually resulted in ADS/B “NextGen”. But that is dumbed down from what had been proposed, and even that was dumbed down from the NASA proposed “AGATE” technology. AGATE has been stuffed so far down the memory hole that even Google has nearly forgotten it. What is the purpose of ATC? In short, to keep airplanes from hitting one another. Period. With modern technology, how would one go about that? Well, to start with, by removing any requirement for communication to a third party go-between. Airplanes have the technology to tell very precisely where they are. They have the ability to communicate with each other. Voila, problem solved. See-and-avoid at computer speeds with zero blind spots. No ATC needs to exist whatever. Yeah, yeah, there needs to be backup, needs to be a navigation alternative to GPS, needs to be default route planning and avoidance algorithm certification. And government will steadfastly insist on keeping final control. But all that can be worked out starting with a blank sheet of paper. The bottom line is that a guy in a dark room with a microphone talking verbally to One. Airplane. At. A. Time. is most definitely 1960’s technology, regardless of what kind of display he’s reading from. Until that component is eliminated in its entirely, it will still be 1960’s technology. The government will never eliminate ATC. A private company will never eliminate it’s bread and butter, ATC. Who will remove this unnecessary burden from the aviation community?

    • A very thought-provoking comment!

      I’m familiar with AGATE, but wasn’t aware that eliminating air traffic control was one of the goals, ideas, or proposals. As I recall, the overall idea behind AGATE was to reinvigorate light GA activity. Wasn’t the program also experimental (the “E” in AGATE)? Even if ATC was eliminated, I don’t think that would achieve the AGATE goal. There are so many things holding GA down. High cost, liability concerns, certification difficulties, noise issues, and more. I’ve never thought of ATC as being one of them, though.

      The stuff about one guy in a darkened room talking to one airplane at a time? That sure sounds archaic… but it overlooks the idea that aircraft can tune a thousand different frequencies and there are countless sectors to divide up the traffic. There’s also something to be said for being on that proverbial party line, where you can hear what other aircraft are saying and get a “big picture” about weather, traffic, and so on.

      Having said that, ATC seems to be slowly moving away from voice communication. Datalink communication is already supplanting voice in oceanic airspace, for clearance delivery, for disseminating weather and airport information, and so on. Eventually I expect that sort of thing will move into busier domestic airspace as well. So I think the system you have in mind will arrive one day, but it won’t be because the ATC system we now have is suddenly replaced with something totally different. It’s like highway repairs — they have to be able to keep the cars moving on the roadway while they upgrade it.

      As for AGATE being stuffed down the memory hole, just for grins I put AGATE NASA into Google and it returned quite a few results, including AGATE technology being used in composite structures, anti-icing techniques, and more.

      • At one time even the nascent internet had quite a bit more information on AGATE. It’s telling that its the structures and anti-icing parts that are still easy to find, and the part with zero ATC all-weather flight by low experienced pilots that has disappeared. In brief, your avionics would communicate with other airplanes in the vicinity, accept your desired route, and “clear” you for flight. The airplane might mostly fly itself, or perhaps with a bit of pilot input to keep things fun. There were internet videos showing how a person with perhaps private pilot training levels would do this in IFR conditions, in crowded SFO and LAX airspace. The underlying concept that by making flight between any point at any time a simple thing, it would increase GA traffic dramatically, increase the market size of GA, making it cheap enough to compete with airlines. How much would an SR-22 cost if Cirrus built 500k units a year? Would it cost less than, or more than a modern full size pickup truck? My bet is the former.You can just see the forces such an idea would anger, so the disappearance of that element of AGATE from the internet is, unfortunately, understandable. So much for the advance of technology to bring new tools for humanity.

        • I doubt it would cost less than the truck. For one thing, liability is a huge part of the cost of an airplane. And Ford sells an F-series truck every 30 seconds, around the clock, all year long. And they’re just ONE manufacturer of pickups…

          The idea of 8-900,000 Cirruses being sold in a year? Well, that’s probably 3x the total number of airplanes on the entire planet.

          Still, I take your point: higher volume = lower per unit cost.

          • It was NASA AGATE that came up with the cost estimates. Perhaps I’m exaggerating in my memory of those, but not significantly. Google Dr. Bruce Holmes who was the lead for AGATE. He’s retired from NASA, but he’s still an aviation consultant. I got in touch with him a year or so ago. Talk with him about cost. Liability is fixable via legislation. If you look at the overall complexity and inherent reliability required for automotive vs. aircraft, the former is much more reliable on a hour by hour basis than you would imagine. Likely much more, not less, reliable than aircraft. The complexity and materials required drives cost for a given number of units, and a Cirrus is potentially less costly than the truck on both those counts (you may not be familiar with full size truck prices – you can buy houses for less in many cases). So you’re left with production quantity being the primary driver of GA cost, and we’re going backward on that, not forward. If GA is to survive as a genuine transportation for the non-wealthy something MUST happen to drive up numbers. The easy-to-fly, all-weather cross country transport is a niche no one in GA is seriously trying to fill. Unless someone does this, GA will continue to decline until it’s more like Europe, a hobby unusable for transportation, not much elevated above ultralights. And in that case, who cares whether ATC is privatized or not. Buzzing around the pattern from a remote pasture doesn’t involve ATC.

          • A Ford F-150 XL is $26,950. Even the top of the line, fully equipped version is only $60k. If you can buy a house for less than that in many cases, I’d suggest you invest in real estate! (I live in coastal California, where people pay that much just in property tax).

            I do agree something has to drive up numbers and that liability reform is needed. Cars are not airplanes, though, and never will be. You can built an 8000 lb four sear car and it will perform just fine. Airplane design and engineering is much more delicate and nuanced. I saw a police van on display at an outdoor mall the other day and asked the driver how much it weighed. The answer? As much as my 90 foot long Gulfstream IV!

            GA is being held down by many things, but on my list, an inefficient ATC system is not even in the top 10.

          • A bit more on the original issue, ATC privatization. Given with modern technology that ATC is no longer necessary for it’s primary mission of traffic separation, how will we get rid of it? The government NEVER relinquishes a function once it has it, except in the rare cases it passes it to a private entity (that has the clout on K street to grease the skids). And a private entity that has such clout on K street won’t give it up either. Both would have incentives to keep it fully manned with expensive humans, if not increase their number. The ONLY way to eliminate the burden of ATC is to demonstrate to the flying public that a better way exists. The key word is DEMONSTRATE. ATC must be seen as antiquated and obsolete or it can never be replaced with genuine modern technology. That’s what prompted me into responding to your article in the first place. You shot the cause of advancing aviation in the foot by claiming that ATC is in any way technologically “modern”. It is not. As long as a third party on the ground is controlling the flight of every single aircraft, that will be the limiting factor for aviation. Not to mention that it’s off-putting for freedom loving humans to be told where to go (which factors into selling aviation in the first place). The only way I see for ATC to be replaced is for some outside entity to develop and demonstrate the technology so that everyone in aviation understands just how prehistoric the ATC paradigm of voice directed air traffic is. The development cost of a demo system would be far less than I think most imagine. I could personally do it for less than 7 figures (I build GPS embedded systems in another industry for a living). But even contracting a demo to a major company would cost orders of magnitude less than the billions the FAA is wasting on the 1990’s technology of NEXTGEN. And we don’t have it completed even yet. Anyway, sorry for bending your ear so hard. Please do what you can to influence the aviation industry in a way that will keep the freedom to fly about the country in our own airplanes for us normal people. I’m not hopeful we will keep that freedom in the long run without revolutionary changes in “the system”. And neither keeping ATC a government system or privatizing it will do that.

          • I guess we’ll have to disagree on that. I don’t think I shot the cause of advancing aviation in the foot. The system you describe sounds good, but the thought that our existing air traffic control apparatus will simple be abolished one day is unrealistic and would cripple the system completely (see my previous highway construction illustration).

            I’d also add that a third party on the ground does not control the flight of every single aircraft. Never has. Never will. The vast majority of aircraft fly VFR and operate out of non-towered airports. They takeoff, fly where they want, and land. They can bore holes in the sky, change course at will, and — outside of a small radius around busy airports which do have towers — fly just about anywhere they want at any time they want, avoiding other airplanes visually. They aren’t even required to have radios.

            To me, *that* is freedom.

          • There you go, thinking old school again, which is exactly the problem with the current 1960’s ATC paradigm. Why the difference between VFR and IFR? Why can’t you just get in your plane and go “where you want, when you want”, without calling ATC to file paperwork and ask “may I”? With the system I describe you could. Just jump in your plane, and if your hardware says you’re aren’t in traffic conflict, just fly it where you want, clouds and obscured visibility are irrelevant. THAT is real freedom, and it would bridge the gap with many travelers to be able to depend on a personal airplane to get them where they want to go when they want to go there, without making a career of learning IFR procedures and staying current under our prehistoric system. This was the problem with selling the flight components of AGATE. It proved to be impossible for pilots to imagine that there was another way besides IFR to fly in weather. Their thinking was too rigid. I’ll say it again, the ONLY reason for the existence of ATC in any form is traffic separation, a thing that modern technology could provide with much greater precision and reliability. Forget “IFR vs. VFR”, there need be no difference, and no controller on the ground, either human or machine. Peer to peer traffic avoidance is far superior, more redundant, safer, and would allow dramatic increases in traffic levels. I’ll grant that the possibility of persuading either government or a private ATC of surrendering their monopoly on air traffic is slim to none. But don’t kid yourself that this is a “modern” system, regardless of geegaws installed in dark rooms on the ground. They are obsolete, but no one realizes it. You have the platform that could help pilots understand that fact. But only after you first understand it yourself.

  2. Just an observation, I suggest the for/against people take a look at how NavCanada is moving forward (or not) as far as private ATC goes – granted flying in Canada is not as busy as in the continental US the story on Vancouver-Calgary-Toronto-Montreal experiences may still prove useful to pilots faced with privatization moves south of the 49th. While I can’t say it is a success as it is still molting bureaucracy I do note that they recently reduced some fees for business aircraft services (and raised others….). Overall Canadians pay much more than Americans for ATC services, largely as a result of privatization, such that frequent light aircraft arrivals/departures at our major airports are prohibitively expensive (and avoided!). On the upside the smaller airports are picking up the slack and providing much more service. In the enroute part of the equation I expect we will all have ADS-B whether we like it or not but the utility of the system (free flight) will fall second to traffic flow management in the busy sectors/terminals and it will be just like the good ol’days we have now except you pay more for the privilege of talking to someone in a dark room somewhere (far far away).

    • It’s a good observation, PointVew. NavCanada is certainly one data point that’s worth considering when looking at the idea of privatizing ATC.

      You noted that “Canadians pay much more than Americans for ATC services”, which is a major deal breaker in my book because the primary drag on GA growth and sustainabilty is the high cost of flying. That high cost comes from many places — liability costs, certification and regulatory hassles, low volume production, etc — but anything that makes it more expensive is going to force more of our GA cadre out the door. The downward spiral then accelerates that much more. It gets ugly fast.

      Given that our ATC system is NOT stuck in the 60’s, much of the reasoning for privatization goes away. The major remaining argument concerns the uneven pace of funding from the Federal government. And that *is* a problem, but it’s one we should solve by fixing the budget, not divesting the ATC system to a board of individuals controlled largely by the major airlines.

  3. Mark W. Danielson

    September 5, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Great post. I’ve been saying this same thing ever since I heard the cry to privatize our “outdated” ATC system. ATC’s biggest limiting factor has been VHF communication, and privatization will not change that. Datalink communications is a proven method of controlling commercial traffic, and frees up the radios for lighter aircraft. This is where the focus should be within the existing ATC system.

    • Flying both small, light GA airplanes and large cabin business jets provides me with the opportunity to see it from both angles, and aside from weather issues, in the flight levels it’s much quieter, everyone is under “positive control” and flying a specific clearance and route. Down low it’s mainly uncontrolled, VFR, and much more “freestyle”.

      Keeping IFR airplanes separated is ATC’s primary task, and they do an excellent job with it. I can’t recall two IFR aircraft colliding in my lifetime. Much like paper progress strips in a room full of computers, sometimes the old technology works just fine. VHF radio seems to be doing the job, so maybe we don’t have to reinvent the wheel just yet?

      • Mark W. Danielson

        September 6, 2017 at 10:32 pm

        Ron, for years, CPDLC datalink communication has been in use for ocean crossings. It’s extremely easy for pilots and controllers — especially those whose primary language is not English, as in foreign carriers. This isn’t a matter of reinventing wheels. Incorporating CPDLC in Stateside operations would free up VHF for lower altitude aircraft and help reduce people speaking over each other, com-jamming the frequency. Datalink is already used for receiving ATC clearances and loading flight plans with a button push, so CPDLC is a mere extension of this. Even so, I don’t foresee CPDLC replacing Approach Control or Tower operations, which is where most VHF communication breakdowns occur. I think we both agree that our existing ATC system isn’t “broke”. A little refinement could make it everything it needs to be without privatization.

        • High and low altitude traffic are already separated, despite both using voice communication. When you’re down low, you won’t hear any airliners on the frequency unless they’ve just taken off or landed. Likewise for flying up the flight levels: you won’t hear any light GA traffic on the radio because the controller’s sector doesn’t go down that low. But yes, CPDLC and associated technologies will naturally make their way into more cockpits and a wider variety of operations as time passes. Having said that, the beauty of U.S. flying is that you can aviate in most places without any radios. Heck, you can do it it most places without even having an electrical system. That fact amazes most aviators when they come to America.

  4. MichelleDavid Drumm

    September 8, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Unfortunately most of you just don’t get it! The FAA has already implementing privatization! They don’t call it that but it is. As an example,the ADSB system is Installed, ran an maintained by Contract Not by FAA technician’s. What should happen is that the current FAA employees form there own Non profit and Buy the FAA and run it. Again, Privatization is already happening. It is the best solution for what is Already happening. FAA Employees are the best in the World at what they do. Separating from the Gov would actually be a Great thing. Then we can use the same great people but be able to keep up with current times!

    • Contracting services and the proposed privatization are two entirely different things. To quote Rapp, “Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.”

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