Gatwick’s German Tower Operator may provide some useful insights into US ATC Privatization

atc privatization
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The management of one of London’s major airport control towers, Gatwick (LGW), has been transferred from NATS, an independent UK government organization since 1992 and a private corporation since 2002, to Air Navigation Solutions, which is a British subsidiary of DFS Group, a private German company.

Might the new situation provide the US with a real time laboratory on the wisdom of privatization?

The US Congress and the American aviation industry are debating the merits of privatizing the Air Traffic Control system. Studies and reports—qualitative/quantitative, economic, operational, governance, union/employer, acquisition/technology, environmental, etc.—have been amassed, reviewed, criticized and counter argued with severe differences of opinion. It appears that the timeline for consideration of the transformational AIRR must be extended; so the Gatwick example may hold some lessons.

atc privatization

This change was the result of a competition to select what organization should be granted this franchise. The foreign ATC service provider won based on its superior proposal as judged on its safety, innovation, airport management, technical capability, cost, resilience and the ability to accommodate the requirements of a growing airport package. All of those factors are points of contention in the US debate.

There are a number of operational parameters which could serve as points of comparison for Chairman Shuster’s ATCC proposal:

  • The LGW tower has jurisdiction over a large, complex and dense airspace and runway (“Gatwick operates the busiest and most efficient single runway airport in the world”); so DFS’s operational performance will create some instructive parallels for the US ATCT issues.
  • The German/UK company is expected to keep Gatwick tower’s technology current. That, too, is a matter of concern for Congress and DFS’s scorecard on delays will closely watched in DC.
  • LGR is an appropriate comparison to many US tower operations. The opponents to ATCC say that a private entity, with profit motives, may not be competent to safely manage airspace like JKF, ORD or LAX. This busy London airport may provide relevant data as to safety.
  • Whatever enhancements introduced by DFS systems at LGR will have to integrate with NATS’ computers. The ability to connect systems under a single service provider has been a problem for the FAA; consequently, the ability of this two party coordination will be instructive as to the future UA ATC technology challenges.
  • While not currently part of the various US privatization models, the British have assigned one ATC function (LGR tower), within a system controlled by another private ANS, to one private company. Its success or failure might suggest a non-monopoly structure for the US.
  • Several Members of Congress expressed doubts about the Shuster ATCC because it was unclear where the neighbors would go to complain about noise. The residents of the LGR neighborhoods will have to explore how to “petition” a foreign company about local concerns. If this laboratory shows that DFS can be responsive to the British laments, there may be hope in the US.

atc privatizationWhile the Gatwick Control Tower had been operated for almost 13 years by privatized NATS, the controllers and the management of that company were a continuation of the prior government entity. Neither NATS nor DFS has the authority to set charges for airplanes use of the ATC services, which are set by the CAA.

  • The most vociferous opponents to ATCC object to the fact that its Board (filled with users, especially those with a “bias” toward the large carriers, as alleged) sets the user fees. Maybe this independent regulatory review would pose a useful alternative? [Yes, this mechanism has been in place for years, but another opportunity to review this mechanism should be timely.]
  • The ability to obtain a reasonable return on ATC investments by a private entity is a concern in the US. The LGR record may shed some light on this concern.
  • Governance is a major point of contention, but the real issue is the representation of segments of industry interests (airlines, GA, labor, consumers, etc.) on the ATCC Board. DFS’/Air Navigation’s Directors will only “represent” the corporation’s shareholders. If that works, perhaps ATCC could function with a non-representative governance?

Gatwick’s new air navigation service provider and its performance may provide some insights on a number of critical issues; STAY TUNED!!!


ARTICLE: Gatwick tower transitions to Germany’s ANS
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