Privatizing air traffic control would pose new risks to national security

The push for privatization of the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun again. As we discuss this course of action, national security must be a top consideration.

As someone who has spent nearly 35 years in law enforcement, including serving as director of the U.S. Secret Service, I think there are several key law enforcement and national security questions that have been overlooked and need to be considered as we discuss the merits of bringing private entities into the air traffic control governance structure.

First is a threshold, philosophical question: if an entity with private interests in its leadership takes over air traffic control management, will the bottom-line considerations be prioritized? Investments in Next Generation (NextGen) modernization, a multibillion-dollar air traffic upgrade initiated in 2012, are underway and will only continue to enhance the capabilities of air traffic control.

The communications and geopositioning upgrades associated with NextGen stand to improve the security of our air traffic system through more accurate data exchange. If a private entity begins to oversee these upgrades, it is questionable whether it will place public safety first and its finances second.

Air traffic controllers are subject to rigorous background security investigations as a condition of employment. These investigations ensure that the individual has no criminal record, is not affiliated with criminal or terrorist organizations or has other issues that would indicate a lack of trustworthiness or character.

These background investigations also ensure that the air traffic controller is able to operate effectively and calmly in high-pressure situations. Background investigations are not a one-time requirement, are costly, and continue routinely through the course of an air traffic controller’s career.

Currently, these investigations are undertaken by experienced federal investigators. They can be time and resource consuming, but are well worth it, especially given the current world environment and the threat to aviation. If air traffic control functions are privatized, will this critical function continue to be in the capable hands of federal investigators? This is a critical area where we cannot afford to cut corners.

It is not yet clear how the FAA and this new privatized organization would develop or structure aviation standards or approvals of new regulations — all of which form a coordinated approach to passenger and general aviation security.

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