The nation’s antiquated, balky, delay-prone air traffic control system could finally be a thing of the past, after a House committee approved a bill to transform the horribly mismanaged government-run Air Traffic Control system into a federally chartered non-profit corporation.
The reform bill also picked up a significant endorsement, when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association endorsed the bill, saying that it “will help us maintain the safest, most efficient airspace in the world while we move forward with innovative modernization projects, while protecting the workforce.”
If it makes it into law, Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act would be the culmination of decades of efforts by free market groups to get the federal government out of the business of managing the nation’s air traffic.
For decades, the ATC has been plagued with mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse.
Since 1981, for example, it has been trying to modernize its flight control technology, only to see endless delays and cost overruns. “Thirty five years and $56 billion later, many controllers still keep track of aircraft using paper strips,” noted Dorothy Robyn, who was an economic adviser in the Clinton administration.
The ATC has also suffered from lack of oversight, leading to controllers who have been caught sleeping on the job and who are increasingly making mistakes. An inspector general report found controllers had become far less productive since 2000.
If that weren’t enough, a recent Government Accountability Office report concluded that the ATC system is vulnerable to hackers, putting it “at increased an unnecessary risk of unauthorized access, use, or modification that could disrupt air traffic control operations.”
Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., air traffic control would no longer be run by the FAA, but would instead be operated by an independent, federally chartered corporation, governed by a board representing the ATC’s users, and paid for by user fees rather than through a federal tax.
The reform promises to dramatically improve the nation’s air traffic system, reduce delays and improve safety. That’s not just based on hopeful thinking, but on the experience of 60 countries that have already corporatized their ATC systems. Most notable among them is Canada, which made the switch in the 1990s and has since been able to fully modernize its technology, allowing it to handle 50% more flights with 30% fewer workers.
A government audit of other countries found that safety didn’t suffer, and often improved, efficiency increased, and new technology was successfully deployed after these countries made the switch.
Robert Poole, who has been advocating corporatizing ATC for decades as director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, said the Shuster bill would bring those benefits here. This week, he told a House panel that “what impresses me most of all is who has declared in favor of this reform — aviation professionals who know the system inside and out. That includes the controllers, and it includes all three former chief operating officers of the ATC.”
Now the only people who need convincing are Democrats who’ve resisted corporatizing the ATC in the past — because they can’t imagine that anything run by the government could be run better by a private corporation.
But with the reform now winning the backing of the flight controllers union, Democratic opposition will hopefully wither away this time around.