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Reason's Bob Poole Sets Record Straight on Air Traffic Control Reform

Reason Foundation Director of Transportation Policy Bob Poole has an excellent article in National Review debunking the myths peddled by a handful of conservatives on the House’s AIRR Act proposal to spin off air traffic control from the FAA and into an independent nonprofit. The proposal is based on Canada’s successful Nav Canada corporatization model, which was undertaken 20 years ago and was recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal. An excerpt of Poole’s piece:

The proposal adopted by the House committee was developed over several years by an expert task force (on which I served), made up primarily of former senior DOT and FAA officials who had concluded from their own experience that ATC is poorly suited to be part of a tax-funded bureaucracy. Our work got little traction with aviation groups until the budget sequester of 2013, which furloughed controllers and came close to shutting down 150 privately contracted control towers. This created a “never again” mindset for the airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A) and the controllers’ union, NATCA, which began serious discussions with the task force.

To build broader aviation support, the Eno Center for Transportation convened a working group, co-chaired by former DOT secretary Burnley, which held monthly meetings with all aviation stakeholders for about 18 months. The consensus report urged that the ATO be removed from the FAA and set up as either a nonprofit private corporation (like the highly successful Nav Canada) or a government corporation (like Airways New Zealand).

It was only after the House committee began holding hearings on the idea last year that opposition developed. Left-wing groups attacked the concept as “handing over a vital government function to special interests.” The trade association for business jets – NBAA — used similar language to attack the proposal, arguing that a proposed shift from the minuscule fuel tax that such planes currently pay (relative to the cost of serving them) to a direct user charge (as exists in every country but the U.S.) would make flying unaffordable. And, to many people’s surprise, Delta Airlines broke ranks with its fellow A4A members and quit the organization, arguing that the change would disrupt the FAA’s “progress” on modernization.

[…]

House-committee Democrats mobilized against the bill on ideological grounds, but it passed on a strict party-line vote in February. Since then, “corporatization” of ATC has been endorsed by an array of former DOT secretaries and FAA administrators, along with three former heads of the Air Traffic Organization. It has been denounced by leaders of the Appropriations Committees in both houses, who don’t want to lose the ability to micromanage ATC by controlling its budget. And Delta and NBAA continue their attacks.

Into this debate have stepped two unlikely conservative opponents: Diana Furchtgott-Roth, writing at National Review Online, and Steven J. Allen of the Capital Research Center. They have criticized the bill as a “union giveaway” and a “fake ‘privatization.’” These attacks are troubling not only because they are wrong, but because they conflict with free-market think-tank research dating back to a 1982 Heritage Foundation paper, numerous studies by the Reason Foundation, a powerful recent examination by the Hudson Institute, and longtime support from the Cato Institute. The National Taxpayers Union organized a letter signed by over a dozen center-right transportation researchers supporting corporatization.

I was one of the signatories of the NTU-organized letter mentioned above, have strongly supported the AIRR Act’s air traffic control title, and recently highlighted Allen and Furchtgott-Roth’s basic misunderstandings of federal labor law on this blog. Former FAA COO and Chief Counsel David Grizzle responded in more detail to these false claims in a guest post for CEI.

Bob Poole is the intellectual godfather of these important reforms. In a cover story for the September 1969 issue of Reason magazine, he first discussed these issues at length. He sketched out the basics of this proposal in a 1982 study for the Heritage Foundation. In 2013, the Hudson Institute published Poole’s highly influential study making the case for corporatization in the U.S., “Organization and Innovation in Air Traffic Control.”

Further, this has only become a supposedly partisan issue because House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has chosen to make it one by regurgitating the talking points from Delta and the corporate jet lobby. In reality, Democrats who are familiar with air traffic control corporatization strongly support it, as a letter from former senior Clinton and Obama administration economic and aviation policy advisors highlights. Unfortunately, Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was gullible enough to take DeFazio at his word and is parroting the same falsehoods.

As reams of reports from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, Government Accountability Office, and the National Research Council of the National Academies indicate, something is horribly wrong with air traffic control in the U.S. and the FAA is unlikely to fix it. DeFazio may be putting his corporate jet allies first, but his Democratic colleagues should do their own homework and support these much needed air traffic control reforms.

Read all of Poole’s piece here.