Air Traffic Controllers’ Union, Bush at Odds

Battle over "inherently governmental"

Given the political makeup of Congress, you’d think an executive order signed by President Bush just last year would be safe. After all, the executive order simply removed four words calling air traffic control “an inherently governmental function.”

But apparently, the decline of unions has been greatly exaggerated. Nine Republican senators ignored multiple veto threats from the administration and deserted Mr. Bush so they could cater to an inefficient union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The GOP nine joined all but one Democrat in approving a bill that would force all air traffic control (ATC) functions to be done solely by the U.S. government.

But is ATC inherently governmental? In 2001, a dozen retired senior Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, including four former administrators, didn’t think so, stating, “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.”

Those officials, with decades of experience, knew first hand that our system has become increasingly inefficient and a wasteland that gobbles up taxpayer money. In 2000, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General noted that the number of operational errors in U.S. air traffic control had increased by 51 percent over five years, and complained the FAA’s efforts to reduce the rate were “ineffective” and lacked a “sense of urgency.”

More recently, Inspector General Ken Mead detailed five ATC modernization projects that went $3 billion over budget. On the advice of the former officials, and in attempts to stop the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Bush set out to determine if air traffic control can be provided in ways other than a tax-funded government bureaucracy. It can be — 29 countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Canada and New Zealand have successfully corporatized their air traffic control operations. And both the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, two of aviation’s most important bodies, endorse this global shift toward corporatization.

Britain, Australia and Canada have all shown cost reductions since reorganizing their systems. In Australia, operating costs are down 26 percent — while handling much more air traffic. In Canada, user fees are less than the taxes they replaced and operational irregularities have decreased since NavCanada, a nonprofit corporation, took over.

Mr. Bush’s goal is to make air traffic control more efficient and high-tech — thus able to handle more planes safely with (ultimately) fewer controllers. By taking advantage of airliners’ computerized flight management systems and GPS navigation capabilities, many routine decisions could be made in the cockpit, with the air traffic control system evolving into an air traffic management system, in which controllers serve more as guides and advisors, helping pilots avoid conflicts but not dictating their every move.

But controllers launched an all-out lobbying campaign full of misinformation to block these valuable technological and efficiency gains and succeeded in fooling nine Republican senators. (In an ironic twist, call it karma, the union will undoubtedly spend its money and work tirelessly to take the seats of the nine Republican turncoats who abandoned Bush and voted with them on this bill.)

The union falsely accuses Mr. Bush of trying to “privatize” air traffic control by contracting it out to the lowest bidder. That is completely false. None of the major plans for reform call for the system to be run by a for-profit company. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, in 1997, recommended converting air traffic control into a businesslike operation within the FAA. A 1994 plan by former Vice President Al Gore called for it to be run as a separate government corporation. And a 2001 Reason Foundation plan suggested creating a nonprofit corporation similar to Canada’s system. The union is opposed to all three.

Meanwhile, we aren’t as safe in the skies as we should be. More than 200 small U.S. airports use non-union, private air traffic controllers. In 2000 and 2001, the average error rate at generously staffed, union operated FAA towers was more than twice as high as the error rates at private towers. And the private towers cost less than half as much to run as comparable FAA towers.

Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta stated he will recommend that Mr. Bush veto the entire FAA Reauthorization Bill if it contains its current air traffic language. Congressional Republicans should be smart and remove the language in committee. If they don’t, they will be saying that having controllers remain federal employees is more important than increasing airspace capacity, safety and accountability. While ours remains the world’s busiest air traffic control system, it is no longer the most efficient or the most modern. Freezing the bureaucratic status quo would only worsen this troubling situation.

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.