Culture Is Key to Fixing Air Traffic Control
Photo 42776493 © Zhukovsky -


Culture Is Key to Fixing Air Traffic Control

The Air Traffic Organization's status-quo organizational culture should be top priority for reform

In the current debate on air traffic control reform, just about everyone agrees that uncertain and unstable funding is a problem that must be fixed. The Air Traffic Organization is in triage mode, trading off rising payroll costs, facility maintenance and replacement, and technology modernization within a dire federal budget context. But just coming up with more funding could end up making matters worse.

Despite significant reforms enacted by previous Congresses-personnel reform, procurement reform, and creating the Air Traffic Organization-today’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Inspector General reports document the same problems of poorly specified projects, late delivery, and large-scale cost overruns that we saw in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Pumping more money into a seriously flawed system would amount to “feeding the beast.”

One major problem is a dysfunctional governance system, which the Mineta Commission characterized as “too many cooks.” Top Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers spend enormous amounts of time responding to reports and directives from the GAO, the Inspector General, the Department of Transportation Secretary, the Office of Management & Budget, six congressional committees, and ultimately 535 members of Congress. The end result is that the ATO’s de-facto customer is the government, not the users of the National Airspace System.

But the largest-and least-discussed-problem is the ATO’s status-quo organizational culture. The National Research Council’s May 1st report on NextGen is devastating. The NRC’s expert committee found that NextGen has morphed from a transformation of how air traffic is managed into a $40 billion equipment replacement bonanza. While that may be great for contractors, it is far from clear that-as presently pursued-there is a serious business case for aviation customers in $40 billion of new hardware without fundamental change in the air traffic control (ATC) system’s concept of operations.

The key question is why this kind of thing continues to happen. The NRC experts put the blame on the FAA’s “conservative safety culture,” which they find “can affect how quickly process and technological change can happen.” This kind of “conservatism will understandably bias the agency away from innovation.” Among the risks of this kind of culture is “the opportunity cost of not deploying improved (and potentially even safer) technologies and procedures.”

In a 2014 study commissioned by the Hudson Institute, I examined how the ATO is dealing with seven examples of disruptive changes in ATC: controller-pilot data link, GPS-based landing systems, GPS-based surveillance to replace radar, performance based navigation, real-time aviation weather, remote towers, and facility consolidation. All seven are potential breakthroughs in ATC performance and cost-effectiveness, but each faces a difficult way forward at the ATO (despite good intentions). By contrast, each of these is making greater headway in the hands of corporatized air navigation service providers in other countries. One of the most dramatic comparisons is the inability of the ATO to invest in space-based ADS-B provider Aireon, or even (thus far) to sign up as a customer, in contrast to Nav Canada’s role as both lead investor and launch customer.

Again, the question is why. There are many knowledgeable, dedicated people at FAA and in the ATO, but as David Osborne wrote during the Clinton Administration’s efforts to corporatize ATC (a corporation called USATS), expecting the FAA to excel at running a 24/7 high-tech service business is “a bit like putting a Ferrari engine in a dump truck body and still expecting it to win races.” But it’s not just that the ATO is trapped within a tax-funded government bureaucracy. Because the ATO is embedded in a very conservative safety regulatory agency, its organizational culture is basically the same-risk-averse and status-quo oriented.

Consider where all the innovative ideas and technology come from. Boeing, Exelis, Honeywell, Saab Sensis and their counterparts think outside the box and are far more imaginative than FAA about how air traffic management can be transformed. But anything they propose is subject to arm’s-length safety regulation by the FAA. The kind of creative tension that exists between industry and FAA does not-and cannot-exist between FAA and ATO as long as the ATO is embedded within the safety regulator organization.

Therefore, a necessary condition for fixing the culture problem is to pull the ATO out of FAA, to be regulated at arm’s length. Organizational separation removes an inherent (self-regulation) conflict of interest and has been International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) policy since 2001. It is also the practice of every developed country other than ours. And since major air navigation service providers have been separated and corporatized in recent decades, their safety record has improved compared to the status quo ante.

But separation alone will not suffice to change the culture. A free-standing ATO also needs basic governance and funding reforms. The “too many cooks” problem stems directly from the fact that the ATO today is spending taxpayers’ money. Of course Congress and GAO and the Inspector General and Office of Management & Budget must oversee and micro-manage, to see that taxpayer funds are not wasted. But if the new ATO shifts to the global, ICAO-blessed practice of charging users directly for its services, it’s those users whose money will be spent. Those users should then be the ones making key policy decisions and holding ATO management responsible for results. Governance needs to be the responsibility of a stakeholder board.

As a self-supporting non-profit corporate entity, the new ATO would also be freed from federal procurement and civil service regulations. It could hire and properly compensate top-notch program managers, engineers, and software experts-and hold them accountable for results. That would further the change in organizational culture, as we have seen in air navigation service providers such as DFS, NATS, and Nav Canada since they were corporatized.

Funding, governance, and culture: all three need to be fixed. But the greatest of these is culture.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared at Aviation Week.