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Air Traffic Debate About Safety and Efficiency

Pilots work for private companies, why not controllers?

Robert Poole
September 27, 2003

When you fly American, Southwest or any other airline do you worry about the pilot's credentials?

Chances are you don't. You know the pilots have undergone years of training, earned their pilot's licenses, and are the very best at what they do. And the fact that the pilots work for a private company, whose goal is to make a profit, doesn't even enter our thinking.

So why is it acceptable that the pilots work for private companies, but those on the ground directing traffic, air traffic controllers, claim they must be federal government employees for national security's sake?

There's a major political battle being waged over that very question. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has thus far blocked the entire Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill for the next three-year period (which begins Oct. 1). That bill funds everything from airport grants to runways to research and development. The union is holding up the entire bill to prevent the expansion of the thriving Contract Tower Program. Under that program, private companies already operate air traffic control towers at 219 small airports, using FAA-licensed controllers. The FAA bill, supported by the Bush administration, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and many others, would expand the program to another 69 airports across the country.

The union claims the safety of our air traffic system is being compromised and "sold to the lowest bidder." But a mountain of evidence shows otherwise. Earlier this year NATCA's president asked the Department of Transportation's Inspector General to review cost and safety issues associated with the Contract Tower Program. And the union has now learned that you should be careful what you ask for.

The Inspector General's report, released earlier this month, found that contract towers had significantly lower error rates than similar union-staffed FAA towers: contract towers experienced 0.49 errors for every million operations handled; comparable FAA towers had considerably higher error rates - 2.03 incidents per million operations. In addition to better safety and performance, the contract towers also cost one-third as much to operate as comparable FAA-run towers, saving taxpayers $917,000 per tower. That's because FAA towers tend to be much more generously staffed, and union controllers earn higher wages.

Aviation experts have long recognized that our air traffic system is in desperate need of improvement and new technology. In 2001, a dozen retired senior FAA officials, including four former Administrators, released a statement urging air traffic reforms, saying, "Air traffic control is a 24 hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week high-tech service business. It can and should be operated by a separate corporate entity, paid directly by its customers, and directly accountable to its customers for its performance. This country can no longer afford to provide this 21st-century service using a 1950s-type organizational and funding approach."

And that's not a new idea: 29 countries, including Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand successfully corporatized their air traffic control systems. The controllers' union claims the U.S. shouldn't follow suit because it is a matter of national security. But if we critically examine the data, it becomes clear that the union is protecting only their government jobs and pensions, not air travelers. The funny thing is, controllers wouldn't lose their jobs in a new system. None of the major air traffic control reform plans call for turning it over to outside companies.

During President Bill Clinton's administration, a 1994 plan by Vice President Al Gore called for air traffic to be converted into a self-supporting government corporation. Former Congressman (now Transportation Secretary) Norm Mineta recommended converting air traffic control into a businesslike operation within the FAA in 1997. And a 2001 Reason Foundation plan suggested creating a nonprofit corporation similar to Canada's system. The union opposed all three plans.

We want the best pilots flying the planes and we want the best air traffic controllers manning the towers. Our air traffic system has failed to exploit new technology - controllers continue to watch blips on outdated monochrome monitors and keep track of flights on paper strips - and relentlessly fights to maintain the bureaucratic status quo. But the Inspector General's numbers don't lie - the Contract Tower Program has proven to be immensely successful and efficient. Instead of blocking its expansion (and the entire FAA bill), union air traffic controllers should try to learn something from their private-sector peers. After all, if safety is our top priority, aren't we all on the same team?

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is Director of Transportation Studies at Reason Foundation. A version of his air traffic control corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Transportation the White House Office of Policy Development, the National Performance Review, the National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on air traffic control.


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


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