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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #7

Topics include: next steps in FAA Reform; the Single European Sky proposal; FAA's new "inherently governmental" policy; and ATC reform and general aviation's future.

Robert Poole
August 1, 2002

In this issue:

What Next for FAA Reform?

When new FAA Administrator Marion Blakey takes up her duties next month, she will inherit what House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica called a "dysfunctional" bureaucracy in need of major reforms. Mica's comments were made at a July 16 hearing that focused on reform of the agency, and its troubled air traffic control system in particular. Much of the discussion concerned the stillborn plan to reorganize ATC as a new Air Traffic Organization (ATO), headed by a Chief Operating Officer (COO) recruited from outside. Despite the post's salary having been raised to $400K, no qualified candidates for the job have emerged over the past 18 months.

Most witnesses pointed to the confusing lines of responsibility, in which the job description reads like that of a CEO, but the COO would report to (1) the FAA Administrator, (2) the Air Traffic Services Subcommittee (ATSS), and (3) a number of congressional oversight committees. The original recommendation for separating ATC (from NCARC, chaired by Norm Mineta) envisioned ATC being run like a business, with the top person functioning like a CEO and the ATSS functioning like a board of directors. But what emerged via AIR-21, Clinton's Dec. 2000 executive order, and internal FAA planning for the ATO is something of a mess. "It was said that Congress tried to create a horse, but instead got a camel with four humps," said Mica. "We should separate the ATO from the rest of the agency, and the Administrator would remain responsible for safety issues."

Garvey and other status-quo defenders resisted even that modest step. Garvey called for the COO to report to the Administrator, who would, in turn, be made chairman of the ATSS and CEO of the ATO. In other words, instead of putting the ATO at arms-length from the aviation safety regulator, Garvey would tie them inextricably together, subverting the whole idea of making ATC a separate business operation. GAMA's Ed Bolen went even further, calling for the ATSS to be merged into the purely advisory Management Advisory Council of the FAA, eviscerating its potential of functioning as a quasi-board of directors for the ATO.

Mica was evidently not pleased with such stand-patism. He said that the Aviation Subcommittee would be conferring with Senate staff to explore more fundamental FAA restructuring. "This is a very critical time," he said, referring to the gradual return of air-travel delays. "We may not get another shot."


Swiss Mid-Air Makes Single-Sky More Urgent-But Unions Balk

The horrible July 1 mid-air collision in Swiss-controlled airspace over southern Germany is curious for what it did not lead to. Since Swiss ATC corporation Skyguide (98 percent government-owned, but corporatized, nevertheless) was clearly to blame for failing to keep the two planes separated, one would have expected yet another anti-privatization blast from ATC unions, including the inimitable John Carr of NATCA. Instead, the silence was deafening-but for good reason. Less than two weeks before the fatal mid-air, a gaggle of ATC unions in Europe, led by the French-based ATCEUC, had organized a series of strikes and slowdowns that snarled air traffic across the continent. The focus of their protest was the EU's proposed Single European Sky initiative, which the union group described as "undesirable and dangerous."

In fact, as virtually everyone in aviation except ATCEUC acknowledges, European ATC is a horrible, fragmented mess. Air traffic in that small geographic area is controlled by 65 different centers, with 31 different systems using 22 different computer networks using 33 different computer languages. Every time a flight has to be handed off from one country's system to another's, the potential for screw-ups exists. That's what happened on July 1, when the Russian plane crossed from German to Swiss airspace and the DHL plane from Italian to Swiss control. Somehow, both were assigned to the same altitude. As The Observer (London) pointed out, a similar event could happen "almost anywhere across Europe at any time." The paper quoted a British controller that the kind of mistakes that led to the collision are "the sort of things repeated daily throughout Europe."

So it's no wonder the militant French ATC unions kept their mouths shut in the wake of July 1st. Even the liberal Guardian newspaper has criticized ATCEUC for opposing Single Sky. The paper editorialized that it is "trying to figure out why the unions are not striking for the proposal rather than against it." The obvious answer is that the unions fear that rationalizing the system by creating functional blocks of airspace, rather than ones based on national boundaries, would reduce the number of controllers needed. While that is likely true, other things being equal, the fact is that under the current fragmented structure, Europe is short about 1,600 controllers. And the continent is facing a looming retirement bulge similar to (but not as bad as) what the FAA faces here. So the likelihood of significant net job losses under Single Sky is small.

It's high time European unions stopped opposing free flight, functional blocks of airspace, and the separation of safety regulation from ATC service provision-all key components of the Single European Sky. The gains will be measured not merely in reduced delays and less wasted fuel. They will also be measured in lives saved.


FAA Defines Privatized Services Very Narrowly

How does that old saw go, "The President proposes, but the Congress disposes?" Well, when it comes to the Executive Order President Bush issued June 4, clarifying that ATC is not "inherently governmental," the President proposed but the FAA has now disposed. To be specific, the agency has issued a Determination as to whether the towers run by private firms under its Contract Tower program-the subject of long-running legal challenge from NATCA—are inherently governmental or not. It reached the obvious negative conclusion, but did so in as narrow a way as possible.

To be sure, it is likely that Bill Peacock, Director of Air Traffic, was only doing what he was asked to do. So his July 12, 2002 Determination memo takes pains to limit its remit to the narrow range of ATC services encompassed by the current Contract Tower program-VFR towers that handle low to moderate volumes of air traffic. It goes into some detail to show that such towers are subordinate to a parent facility (operated directly by FAA), that they must follow detailed FAA regulations and policies, and that their controllers may exercise only limited discretion. After stating all these caveats, Peacock is able to conclude that the services provided at these towers are not inherently governmental. However, "whether or not the air traffic services provided by other types of air traffic control towers are inherently governmental is an issue that is beyond the scope of this determination"-though not beyond the straightforward wording of E.O. 13264.

Despite its hyper-cautious wording, the Determination is notable in setting forth some relevant facts, such as:

"At its inception, ATC was a commercial activity, operated by various private companies, airports, and pilots. Since that time, there have always been ATC facilities (including towers) owned and operated by private entities... Many countries that formerly provided ATC as a government service, such as Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and Australia, now obtain these services from a commercial entity. Thus, air traffic services, both domestically and abroad, are already being provided by the private sector."

Hmmm... sounds pretty much like proof that air traffic services could not possibly be "inherently governmental."

And this:

"By 1994, the FAA had confirmed that certain VFR towers operated by federal employees could be operated less expensively and just as safely by private companies. . . As noted in a DOT Inspector General Report (AV-2000-79), the quality and safety of contract towers are on par with FAA-operated towers."

This flies in the face of John Carr's recent assertion-before the Contract Tower Association, no less-that there is no evidence that contract towers are more cost-effective than FAA-operated towers.


Eclipse Rolls Out-But Will There Be Room for It?

Last month saw the rollout of the first Eclipse, the revolutionary $800,000 personal jet. I used its imminent first flight to raise the question of how the current ATC system could cope with the possible addition of tens of thousands of such jets to the crowded airways between FL 290 and FL 410. The point of the article was to suggest to GA pilots that they have a very real stake in ATC reform, one that is being ignored when AOPA and NBAA bad-mouth "privatization." My article was prompted by one such attack, posted on Avweb, which graciously agreed to let me present the other side. You can find the piece by clicking on this link.


News Notes

Garvey's Mixed Legacy. "On the negative side, while she brought peace to the restive air controller workforce by a pay-scale increase, she also created a unionization movement at the FAA that stalled the pay-for-performance program within the agency."-David M. North, Aviation Week editorial, April 8, 2002

Kudos for Corporatized ATC. The fifth annual IATA Eagle awards were announced June 3 at the IATA Annual General Meeting in Shanghai. Winning Eagles for containing both costs and charges since September 11th were four corporatized ATC providers: Irish Aviation Authority, Airservices Australia, Nav Canada, and Czech Air Navigation Services. All four are full members of CANSO. (IATA news release #13, June 12, 2002)

RVSM Halves Delays in Europe. The implementation of reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) in Europe in January has led to a dramatic reduction in delays. Eurocontrol reports that delays attributable to air traffic flow management were 46 percent lower in the first half of 2002 than in the comparable period of 2001. (ATC Market Report, July 25, 2002)

Getting from Here to There on Global CNS/ATM. "The first thing that needs to happen is for the countries concerned to create a sustainable institutional model that will support the delivery of a safe and reliable service. Some form of corporatisation is likely to provide the most effective environment for attracting and developing the commercial, operational, and technical skills necessary for a successful operation."-Craig Sinclair, CEO, Airways New Zealand, in CANSO News, July 2002.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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