On Aviation, Secretary LaHood Should Look to Plans From the Clinton Era

I got a very bad feeling when I saw the announcement that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood had convened a closed-door meeting of aviation stakeholders. And my misgivings only increased when I read the follow-up opinion piece by Bob Crandall and Kevin Mitchell in Aviation Daily’s Nov. 17th edition.

Crandall and Mitchell, both of whom I know and generally respect, got it wrong in this piece, both in their statement of the problem and their proposed solution. They claim that airline deregulation has been a disaster, producing nothing good except lower airfares. I guess they aren’t impressed by the dramatic reduction in accidents and fatalities over that three-decade period or the variety of new airline business models that have emerged. They also lament the loss of “well-paid jobs and a secure career” for airline employees, ignoring the fact that under the cartel conditions maintained by the CAB prior to deregulation, airlines and their employees were locked into Detroit-like wage and work-rule agreements that were no more sustainable long-term for airlines than they were for auto makers.

But what really concerns me is their discussion of “the industry,” as if all companies were knee-deep in red ink and none had viable business models. Quite a few carriers, primarily low-cost carriers, are making profits, which means they have figured out business models better suited to an environment of competition than most of the legacy carriers, still encrusted with business models that have not adequately adjusted despite three decades of competition. On the basis of this glossing over of critically important differences, they call for development of a “national air transportation policy” that would “reshape [the industry’s] future” around some kind of consensus about air transportation public policy objectives.

I respectfully disagree, and hope that Secretary LaHood’s new Federal Advisory Committee on the Future of Aviation does not adopt that grandiose central-planning approach. Instead, the members of this body would be wise to dust off two previous national commission reports, both produced during the Clinton administration. The more far-reaching was the 1993 Baliles Commission, which called for commercializing the ATC system so as to facilitate real modernization, keeping deregulation intact, relaxing restrictions on overseas investment in airlines, and promoting Open Skies initiatives. Most of that sound agenda remains to be accomplished. The other report was produced by the Mineta Commission in 1997. Narrower in focus, it called for more aggressive FAA safety programs, increasing investment in airport capacity, and a watered-down version of ATC commercialization. That report did inspire creation of the Air Traffic Organization, but its even more critical ATC funding reform recommendations remain unaddressed.

The Baliles and Mineta Commission reports should be the starting point for the new Commission. Besides highlighting the portions of their recommendations that remain to be implemented, the new body could also call for serious rethinking of the burden that poorly justified TSA regulation puts on commercial aviation. My main point is that all this ground (except security) has been well-trod twice before. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Let’s take advantage of the considerable research and hard thinking that’s already been done.

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.