The U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system is failing to keep pace with the needs of commercial aviation. Airline traffic has increased by 68% since deregulations. But the workforce is one-third smaller in relation to traffic levels than before the 1981 controllers’ strike. And the computers, radars, and other equipment are generally outdated and unreliable.
One result is extensive delays. According to the Department of Transportation, these delays cost airlines and passengers some $5 billion a year. Another result is decreased safety; two recent airport collisions resulted from ATC deficiencies.
The problem is not simply a lack of money-though that, indeed, is part of the problem. The fundamental problem is that the ATC organization is crippled by being part of a governmental agency (the Federal Aviation Administraion). Civil service rules prevent the FAA from paying enough to attract sufficient experienced controllers to high-stress points like O’Hara, LaGuardia, and Los Angeles. Federal procurement regulations delay needed equipment upgrades for many years. And the FAA operates with a built-in conflict of interest; to both promote aviation and regulate its safety.
Spinning off ATC to a user-funded corporation would solve these structural problems. The British, Swiss, and New Zealand ATC systems use this model, and it has recently been proposed for restructing the entire European ATC system. Direct user fees would make funds available quickly and efficiently to upgrade the system to state-of-the-art technology. And the corporation could pay whatever was needed to attract sufficient numbers of experienced personnel to its critical facilities.
The result would be a safer, more efficient ATC system, able to keep pace with a growing, competitive aviation industry.