Air Traffic Improvements to Ensure Friendly Skies

How to bring air traffic system into the 21st century

While kids watch DVDs in cars and JetBlue offers a personal television for every passenger on its planes, our nation’s air-traffic controllers continue to watch blips on outdated monochrome monitors and keep track of flights on paper strips.

There’s a major battle being waged behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., over how to bring our air-traffic-control system into the 21st century. The Bush administration is attempting to update technology, improve performance, and save taxpayer money on things like Flight Service Stations that offer private pilots weather briefings and flight-planning services — the key tool is competitive contracting for specific services. Unions at Orlando Executive and Orlando-Sanford International airports are fighting these improvements because they believe it is an end-around designed to privatize our entire air-traffic-control system. Those fears aren’t grounded in reality.

No major plan has suggested privatizing the air-traffic system or selling it to the highest bidder, as the union likes to claim. The Clinton administration (1994-95) and the nonpartisan Mineta Commission (1997) both called for converting our air-traffic-control system into something like a corporate entity (though still within the federal government), with a board of directors, a CEO with real authority, and direct payments by users to the corporation. With a bondable revenue stream, such an entity could bring in advanced technology more quickly and more efficiently than an FAA bureaucracy that must go hat in hand to Congress every year. The air-traffic-controllers’ union opposes both plans.

Over the past decade, 29 other countries have converted their air-traffic-control agencies into corporations, supported directly by user fees. Britain, Australia and Canada have all shown cost reductions since reorganizing their systems. In Australia, operating costs are down while handling 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.

For the flying public, our interests are simple — we want the skies to be safe and we want air-traffic-control agencies to be accountable and responsible with our tax dollars. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now.

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.”

The latest Inspector General’s audit found that 20 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) modernization projects have had cost overruns of $4.3 billion and schedule slips of one to seven years. To longtime FAA watchers, this blatant lack of accountability and disregard for taxpayer money come as no surprise. Tired of watching this waste firsthand, a dozen former FAA officials, including four administrators who ran the agency at different times, issued a statement 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.”

Special-interest groups and controllers’ unions have repeatedly derailed attempts to improve the performance and effectiveness of our system. Instead, they seem solely focused on maintaining their status as government employees. Perhaps that’s because they don’t measure up to contract controllers.

Under its highly successful Contract Tower program, the FAA pays private companies to operate more than 200 small-airport control towers, including four near the Orlando area — Kissimmee, Lakeland, Melbourne and Titusville-Cocoa. Reports by the General Accounting Office and the DOT’s Inspector General have found that — compared with similar small-airport towers still run by the FAA itself — the Contract Towers cost less than half as much to operate and have lower rates of error. No wonder the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has a longstanding lawsuit seeking to have the program declared illegal. And no wonder the Bush administration is looking at expanding outsourcing to the remaining small towers.

As congressional committees work through the FAA Reauthorization Act and the future of our air-traffic system, the battle is over the performance of this vital function in 21st-century America. Will air-traffic control remain chronically short of funds and lagging in technology? Or will it become a high-tech service business, facilitating the growth of aviation in the best interest of air travelers? Hopefully, special interests won’t beat the interests of the flying public in this one.

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.