Commentary

From the Stone Age to the Jetsons: A Call for ATC Reform

The U.S. often leads the world in the adaptation of technology. But in one area thiscountry has fallen behind almost every developed country: air traffic control. Our air traffic control (ATC) system is furnished with outdated radar technology, and riddled with flight delays, wasted fuel, and wasted crew hours. It has become the black sheep amongst ATC systems in developed countries. Government inertia has kept the system from making needed modernizations. The time has come for the U.S. to corporatize ATC transferring one of the nation’s most vital services from the FAA to independent management.

Both sides of the aisle have concerns about ATC reform. Republicans fear a government run corporation while Democrats fear any privatization endeavor. However, a corporatized ATC system solves both of these concerns. Under FAA operation, ATC is susceptible to the financial and political whims of Congress instead of the demands and needs of American air travelers. Under the corporatization plan, ATC would remain regulated by the federal government to ensure safety but would be operated by a non-profit interested in innovation and efficiency.

One of the greatest success stories in ATC corporatization stems from Canada’s ATC operator Nav Canada. Corporatized in 1996, Nav Canada has earned multiple industry awards in its provision of “safe efficient and cost-effective Air Navigation Service,” a novel idea by contemporary American ATC standards. Aside from ATC services, Nav Canada has harnessed the free market to expand its business model to include research and development endeavors in the ATC technology and hardware arena as well.

Under the American model, flights are regulated to pre-determined flight paths outlined by ground based radar systems. These pre-determined flight paths can often take flights out of their way or lead to high corridor demand,slowing down the flight process. Nav Canada’s point to point system known as Canadian Automated Air Traffic System (CAATS) somewhat mirrors the FAA’s Next Gen point to point technology. However, NextGen is still far from fruition and by the time it is implemented, if ever, the satellite technology on which Next Gen is based will likely be out of date.

Harvard professor and economics textbook author Gregory Mankiw bluntly outlines ten principles of economics in his widely distributed textbooks: a principle especially relevant to ATC reform is that, “People respond to incentives.” Put simply the poor state of the U.S. ATC system spurs from the poor incentive structure upon which U.S. ATC operation is based. There are no incentives for a federally run ATC system to increase efficiency.

In a recent meeting between President Trump and airline executives, it was clear that there has been a disconnect between the demands of the marketplace and ATC services hastily provided by the FAA. As an example, airlines take on risk and operate in one of the most competitive service markets in the world, fitted with plentiful incentive structures. The free market rewards airlines for good service and produces opposite effects for poor service. The same approach can be taken for ATC as well. A poor operational track record of theU.S. ATC has negatively affectedthe air travel of Americans for far too long. We need an ATC system that works for all people. An effective ATC system must provide world class service, not conform to the whims of the FAA and the volatile politically charged actions of Congress.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.