WASHINGTON, January 22, 2014 – How do you lower ticket prices, decrease delays, increased safety, reduce congestion, benefit the environment, and increase exports? Simple: privatize air-traffic control.
The last twenty years have seen tremendous technological advances. Americans’ everyday lives have been drastically altered by the influx of innovation in medicine, transportation, communications, and more. Yet, these great leaps have oddly not penetrated America’s air traffic control towers. Today, planes in U.S. airspace are directed by the same system that was developed in the 1960s. It comes as little surprise that the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in safety, speed, fuel efficiency, and reliability of air travel. The American traveler would greatly benefit from entering the 21st century of aviation technology by depoliticizing the air-traffic control system.
A new report from the Hudson Institute sheds light on the problems. Bob Poole, the study’s author, argues that our air-traffic control system should take advantage of technological innovation to improve our system and thus air travel for all. As air-traffic control operates today, planes still have to fly in a zigzag path to receive transmissions from a succession of ground-based radio beacons. This wastes time in the form of longer flights and waste money in the form of higher fuel costs. Navigation is still conducted by radio rather than the GPSs that millions of Americans have in their cars and on their phones. Air-traffic control towers are still located directly beneath airspace despite new breakthroughs which permits a smaller number of towers at higher distances.
The new technology is on the table and ready to be used. Within the past two decades, aviation experts have developed a new air traffic control paradigm using digital communications and new procedures to permit greater use of airspace, better use of runway space, improve landing protocols, and provide pilots with more accurate weather information.
The federal government is allowing important systems like air traffic control to fail because we have allowed them to be politicized. Poole uses the term “status-quo bias” when describing the bureaucracy of air traffic control. He found that air-traffic control is stuck in its elder phase and the unfortunate status-quo is impenetrable. Problems with the current system are numerous. To begin, the FAA is both the air traffic provider and regulator. This dual role has led to an over-cautious regulatory behavior on the behalf of the FAA and suffocated potential for innovation.
The FAA has lost a tremendous amount of its engineers and managers as private sector opportunities are now more prevalent and better paying. This is becoming a larger problem in regards to the federal government as in 2011 a Partnership for Public Service poll found only six percent of graduates plan to work for the government following graduation.
The FAA receives oversight from the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General, Congressional Committees, Office of Management and Budget, and Department of Transportation. This has lead the FAA to prioritize their efforts in pleasing their political overseers instead of focusing on aviation customers that have direct involvement with the quality and cost of ATC. Politicizing an agency opens it up to the whims of political pressures, the selfishness of politicians aiming to get re-elected, the bureaucratization of federal government programs, and the thin-skin of politicians that can be captured easily by special interests.
Air travel is too important a part of the American economy, at roughly 5% of GDP per year, to still be stuck in the 1960s. It’s no surprise that such bureaucracy in what should be a high-tech industry has created the inefficiency, mediocre quality, and travel congestion seen today in American airports. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office considers the FAA a “high-risk” agency for wasteful spending. Each flight has a required “buffer zone” to protect it from the other planes flying in similar airspace. But with better precision radar, which is ready to be utilized, the size of the buffer zones could be reduced which increases the potential amount of flights. Its chaotic budget, overseen by irresponsible politicians, has no role in business management. Just last year, during the sequester, some air-traffic workers were furloughed. It is reckless maneuver to keep air-traffic control under the reigns of unstable government, especially when the product it delivers is only mediocre.
Canada privatized its air-traffic control system in 1996. Unlike the U.S., Canada’s privatized system is not publicly subsidized but instead supported entirely through user revenues. As a result, the Canadian model is one of the safest and most efficient in the world. Britain also privatized its air-traffic control system in the form of a non-profit corporation. As numerous comparative studies such as Chris Edwards’s of the Cato Institute explains, the U.S. is behind the rest of the world when it comes to air traffic control.
Since the FAA handles more than fifty million takeoffs and landings per year, it’s imperative to enter the 21st century by lowering costs, improving efficiency, and relieving travelers of congestion. It is time for the U.S. to privatize its outdated air traffic control system. Entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley would manage the system better than bureaucrats directed by political officials. The U.S. should pride itself on being on the cutting edge of technological advances for the sake of smoother flights.
Matthew La Corte is a Young Voices Advocate studying political science and economics at Hofstra University in New York City.