Las Vegas Sun

July 18, 2019

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Guest column:

Air traffic control is not a system we want privatized

Our nation’s air traffic control system is one of the most important parts of our infrastructure and is undeniably the largest and most complex system in the world.

Our system moves millions of passengers and tons of cargo, and connects thousands of communities on a daily basis. This requires a level of safety and security that can only be ensured and maintained through governmental oversight. 

That is why it defies reason why many are still calling for privatization of this system, brushing aside the many serious security concerns that would need to be considered before we could even consider such a massive and consequential transformation.

With more than 2.2 million people flying daily in the United States, security, oversight and reliability have never been more important. Any kind of disruption to the meticulous day-to-day operations involved with air traffic control and its critical national infrastructure would cause immediate economic and psychological impact. 

While a proposal put forth in Congress would run air traffic control through a not-for-profit entity, it would be responsible for maintaining all aspects of the system, including security. The private sector has a bottom line and profit is the primary goal.

Good security is expensive and is a constant cost. Consistency is key to defense and security, and on the commercial side of aviation, glitches and hacks remain just about the only predictable variables.

Second, modernized technology and privatization are often spoken of in the same sentences, but foreign air traffic control providers are behind the times with latest innovations. For example, planes leaving U.K. airports have been on average 19.7 minutes late.

Additionally, a 2018 annual report for the U.K.’s privatized provider, NATS, states “our airspace structures have not changed significantly over the past 50 years and will not accommodate the forecast growth in traffic and airport infrastructure … without causing unacceptable air traffic delays to the traveling public.”

Here at home, commercial airlines have experienced near-constant IT glitches that jeopardize the safety and security of travelers, private information and cyber infrastructure. These incidents have risen in the past decade and will likely continue to increase, given that even the most advanced technology companies in the U.S. face constant cyberthreats and challenges — as evidenced by the recent data breach of Facebook.

A hard stance on cybersecurity measures stresses consistency and standardization across all fields. Currently, the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense monitor and mitigate any threat to cybersecurity. If the transfer of power moves out of the hands of the government and into the hands of private entities, who will be held accountable for oversight and monitoring the security measures put in place? 

Security is typically not the primary goal of the private sector, as it is costly and manpower intensive without any recognizable profit. Typically, security budgets in the private sector fluctuate depending on profits.

Air traffic control is too big to fail, and the debate around privatizing these mechanisms should give rise to the importance of understanding the role the government plays in the security, regulatory and standardization processes along with the repeated technology glitches and cyberattacks private aviation entities are facing. With advancing technologies and an increasingly interconnected world, cybersecurity is more important than ever.

The government has the authority to set high standards and regulations that must be followed to ensure that cybersecurity measures are impenetrable and can detect and mitigate any attack. Removing this authority from federal control and placing it in the hands of unaccountable private entities would put the security of aviation infrastructure at an even greater risk to hackers, cybercriminals and foreign governments.

We should not allow the private sector to control the security of our critical air traffic control system without fully understanding the risks. From a risk versus gain perspective concerning security of the system, the answer is no.

John Halinski is the former deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and previously served as the COO for the 62,000-person organization.