Time to Reform America’s Creaky Air Traffic Control System

By Michael Sargent, Heritage Foundation Policy Analyst

With the 4th of July holiday around the corner, more than 3.4 million Americans are expected to take to the skies to arrive on time for their Independence Day celebration.

It won’t be turbulence-free for all, however.  Congestion and delays for such a large surge in traffic are nearly inevitable, with many passengers left holed away in crowded, outdated airports.

To some extent, Congress can address these problems in its authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which committees in both chambers will consider this week.

One of the reasons that delays plague so many travelers is the nation’s outmoded air traffic control (ATC) system, which directs planes as they land, take off, and fly across the country.

At a time when nearly every car or smartphone uses accurate GPS navigation, our ATC system still relies on 20th century radar technology and strips of paper to track the thousands of U.S. flights daily.

The ATC system struggles to modernize and fulfill numerous other basic business functions because the FAA, a cumbersome government agency, provides the service.

Given that the FAA is primarily a risk-averse safety regulator, the agency is not well suited to provide a high-tech, 24/7 service.  Furthermore, because the FAA acts as its own regulator, if faces a conflict of interest when it comes to safety reporting, an issue the International Civil Aviation Organization warned governments to address in 2001.

Air traffic control is further hampered by congressional micromanagement.  Add to this budget uncertainty due to constant political wrangling over the federal budget.  These structural flaws—inherent in housing the ATC provider in a government bureaucracy—have hindered reform efforts to modernize the agency.

Indeed, as the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General recently reported to Congress, the myriad proposals to rejigger air traffic control “have not achieved the expected cost and productivity outcomes.”

Instead, the issue is intrinsic to the current system’s governmental arrangement.  The IG notes “systemic issues impact FAA’s ability to meet its overall cost, schedule and implementation goals,” of improving its technology and service.

Rather than continuing to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the better way to provide Americans with modern air traffic control is to free it from the government morass.

It’s time to establish the ATC as a private non-profit governed by aviation users.  This move would ensure that ATC could better run as an independent, innovative business while still ensuring the users of the system have a say in its operation.

To see how this could work, we can look to Canada, which shifted ATC services from the government to a non-profit 20 years ago.  Since then, Canada has become a world-leader in developing the next generation of ATC technology, all the while reducing costs to users by some 40 percent.

Fortunately for fliers, this idea is gaining political traction in the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) recently introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (21st Century AIRR) Act.

It would separate ATC from the government and establish it in a private, non-profit provider governed by a 13-member board representing various users of the system.

Although Shuster proposed a similar bill that fizzled last year, the Trump administration has already voiced interest in such an arrangement, giving the proposal more political viability.

The 21st Century AIRR Act has several significant shortcomings, such as continuing subsidies to corporate jets and setting up the corporation as a government-sanctioned monopoly.  But it provides a far better path forward than maintaining the outmoded status quo.

Special interests and political inertia may prove a high barrier for the proposal to overcome, but fliers tired of flight delays due to inefficient ATC services should demand more for their money’s worth.

That means running ATC like a business—not a government agency—in order to generate a faster, safer, and more cost effective aviation system.

*Originally published in Canada Free Press, click here.

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