NYT Editorial Board Repeats Falsehoods on Air Traffic Control Reform

The New York Times editorial board has staked out a position on proposed air traffic control reform legislation, and it doesn’t like it.

To anyone following this policy battle, the Times editorial reads like it was written by Delta Air Lines, the sole airline opposed to the deal, even relying on debunked claims about Nav Canada contained in a recent “study” produced by Delta lobbyists. Linking to a Delta press release, the New York Times falsely claims costs borne by users went up when the fees charged in Canada are actually more than 30% lower than the taxes they replaced 20 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

(Dear New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, your esteemed editorial board got hoodwinked on a major public policy issue by a friggin’ airline press release.)

The editorial board claims “there is no credible evidence that a privately operated system would be better than the current one.” Except this claim runs counter to the evidence presented by numerous scholarly bodies and informed policymakers. In addition to the Republican House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership and airlines cited as supporters of reform, the Times should have mentioned the following non-Republican/industry interest groups or experts supporting the plan. To name a few:

  • The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing 15,000 members;
  • Dorothy Robyn, aviation management policy expert and former Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, National Economic Council, under President Clinton (1993-2001);
  • Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), co-chair of the Eno Center for Transportation Next Generation Air Traffic Control Working Group and former chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee; and
  • Former Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), former U.S. Secretary of Transportation (2001-2006) and former chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

In addition, the reforms are supported by two additional former Secretaries of Transportation, President Obama’s previous FAA Administrator, and all three former Chief Operating Officers of the FAA (the nation’s top air traffic control official).

The Times concludes with a doubling-down of its incoherent opposition to air traffic control reform by arguing “if they trust the F.A.A. to regulate safety, why not let the agency operate air traffic control as it has for decades? It makes no sense to remake a system that is not broken.” Just because the editorial page staff at the Times don’t follow air traffic control news doesn’t mean they can rewrite both history and reality.

Beginning in the late 1980s with New Zealand, more than 60 countries around the world have recognized that there is a conflict of interest in having the nation’s aviation safety regulator charged with providing air traffic control services, and as a result have seperated their air navigation service providers from safety regulatory authorities.

In 1994 on behalf of the Clinton administration and as reported at the time by the New York Times, Vice President Al Gore proposed separating air traffic control from the FAA, largely for the same reasons cited by proponents of reform in 2016. In 2001, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a body of the United Nations, required that member countries, including the U.S., separate air traffic control entities from their regulators. Today, the United States is the last large developed country to have not separated its air navigation service provider from its national aviation safety regulator.

Years of delay, billions of dollars in cost overruns, and reams of government reports back up reformers’ warnings about the dire state of air traffic control modernization under the watch of the FAA, from the Government Accountability Office, to the National Research Council of the National Academies, to the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.

The only informed groups who are claiming all is well and opposing reform are rent-seeking corporations led by Delta Air Lines and the National Business Aviation Association, which represents corporate jet operators who are heavily subsidized under the status quo (a great deal for the 1%; the bizjet industry represented by NBAA pays just 0.6% of ATC taxes yet accounts for 9-11% of ATC system use).

Unlike the Times, the liberal Washington Post editorial board bothered to do its homework and came to support air traffic control reform, proving that this need not be the cheap partisan issue the New York Times editorial board dimly believes it to be.

For more on the effort to modernize U.S. air traffic control, see CEI’s “Air Traffic Control Reform: Frequently Asked Questions.”