Government seeks to privatize air traffic control system

If the United States does not privatize its antiquated air traffic control system, it risks being left behind by most of the world’s other industrialized nations, said George Mason University’s George Donohue.

Donohue, a systems engineering professor in George Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering and the founding director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research, has long been a proponent of shifting control of the system from the government to the private sector. He was pleased to see President Donald Trump co-opt a House Republican plan to do just that in the hopes of both modernizing the air traffic system and improving overall air traffic efficiency.

“It ultimately will have to be done because the [Federal Aviation Administration] won’t do this,” Donohue said. “We’re just getting further behind the rest of the world.”

A former FAA associate administrator for research, development and acquisitions during the Clinton administration, Donohue said the FAA lacks the necessary capital or high-level technical talent needed to adequately monitor the nation’s skies.

The system requires considerable technological upgrades every few years to stay up to date, he said, but federal budget constraints make that unlikely.

“It’s like fruit,” Donohue said. “When the fruit is ripe, it’s very good. When it’s not, it’s rotten and needs to be thrown away.”

The airline industry has sought to privatize air traffic control since the 1980s to gain greater control over the system, reduce operating costs and replace airline passenger ticket fees with use fees based on takeoffs, landings and other operations.

Under the plan proposed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the nation’s air traffic control system would shift from the current land-based radar system to a more technologically advanced one using GPS. The FAA would continue to provide necessary safety oversight.

England, Canada, Germany and Australia are among the industrialized nations that already have privatized air traffic control systems.

George Donohoe can be reached at or 301-346-7498.

For more information, contact John Hollis at 703-993-8781 or

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.