Air Travel Delays Don’t Have to Be Part of the Holidays

My new column for the Christian Science Monitor:

Thanks to the recession, air travel delays are down from the highs of recent years. But even if flights this holiday season aren’t nightmarish, experts project far worse delays in coming years, unless fundamental changes are made.

Delays would not have become a problem if air travel had remained the province of the relatively well-off – as it was in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In those days, a federal agency called the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) tightly controlled which airlines could fly which routes, and strictly limited competition to keep fares high and profits virtually guaranteed. But in 1978, thanks in part to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Congress deregulated air travel, permitting real competition on routes and fares.

The result has been rightly called the “democratization of air travel,” as competition created openings for low-fare airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran, and others. Air travel became affordable to just about everyone, and studies show that consumers benefit to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year.

When airline deregulation was enacted, there was lots of “slack” in the infrastructure; airports and the air traffic control system had lots of excess capacity. But the intellectual father of airline deregulation, economist and CAB chairman Alfred Kahn, warned at the time that airline competition would so stimulate the market that airports and air traffic control would get overwhelmed – unless Congress took action to enable them to become more nimble and better able to grow.

Unfortunately, Congress ignored Mr. Kahn’s warning. Air traffic grew and grew, but the air traffic control (ATC) system plodded along as a stodgy, bureaucratic government operation. It gradually introduced better displays and more modern computers, but most of these projects were delivered years late and way over budget. Airports were generally better managed, but remained passive when airlines scheduled far more flights at busy times of day than their runways could handle, leading to ever-longer delays in major cities.

As recently as the early 1990s, more than 81 percent of flights arrived on time, according to US Department of Transportation figures. By 2007, that number had plunged to 73 percent. Thus, prior to the current recession, about 1 out of every 4 flights arrived more than 15 minutes late.

During the 1990s, other countries began reforming the way their ATC systems were governed and funded. The common diagnosis was that ATC is essentially a high-tech service business that doesn’t really fit the model of a government department that depends on annual tax funding and micromanagement.

Instead, they decided that ATC should be operated like a business, charging its aviation customers directly for its services and able to go to the bond market to raise capital for large-scale modernization investments. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and Britain all adopted this model, setting up ATC as a self-supporting entity run by a board of directors and regulated for safety by the national air-safety regulator.

Full Column Here.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.