Air Traffic Control: How to Save Money Without Compromising Services

USA Today reports that air travelers have begun to experience delays resulting from air traffic controller furloughs, which took effect on Sunday in response to automatic federal budget cuts contained in the sequester. According to a statement from Alaska Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects “extensive ground delays ranging from 50 minutes to two hours and a reduction in flight arrivals of 30 to 40 percent at certain airports.”

Of course, there have been plenty of dire predictions about the effects of sequestration, and most have failed to come to pass. Perhaps that’s not surprising — after all, domestic discretionary spending is only falling back to inflation-adjusted 2009 levels, which isn’t exactly the end of the world. Yet air traffic controller furloughs look set to prove an exception to this general trend.

The problem is that the FAA has to cut 10% from its April — September payroll, and is doing this by requiring employees to take unpaid 8-hour furloughs out of every 80-hour pay period. The upshot is 10% staff shortages in all air traffic control facilities, including the busiest ones. Fewer air traffic controllers means that fewer takeoffs and landings can be handled safely, and that equals delays. As a spokesman for the Air Traffic Controllers union put it, “If you have 10 tollbooths and you only open eight of them, traffic is going to back up.”

None of this is to deny the need for real federal spending cuts. Whatever the president says, the United States really does have a spending problem, and a big one at that. But if the goal is to reduce spending on air traffic control, Reason’s policy experts have proposed a much better way.

Air Traffic Control from Anywhere to Anywhere
, which was released earlier this month, suggests combining the NextGen upgrade of air traffic control technology — which will mean air traffic controllers no longer need to be directly below the airspace they are managing — with the consolidation of air traffic control centers and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities. By closing more than 100 existing air traffic control facilities, Reason’s plan would generate approximately $1.7bn in one-time savings, and save another $1bn a year going forward by increasing productivity and reducing maintenance and facility costs.

Better still, the study proposes shifting the cost of air traffic control away from taxpayers altogether by making the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) an independent entity, regulated at arms-length by the FAA, and allowing it to charge aircraft operators for its services (just like airports and other utilities) and issue bonds backed by this revenue stream. This model has been successfully used overseas for many years, in countries like the Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K.

The crucial point here is that it is possible to significantly reduce spending without compromising services, provided you’re smart about it, and take a structural, reformist approach instead of imposing arbitrary, across-the-board cuts. This lesson extends far beyond air traffic control: indeed, sustainably balancing America’s books in the long run is going to require just such an effort, and on a much larger scale. For now though, air traffic control seems as good a place as any to make a start.