Reforming Air Traffic Control Is Key to the Future Health of American Aviation

When we travel by air, the hassles of getting through airport security and delayed flights tend to weigh most on our minds. Few of us pay any attention to the institutions governing the 50-million-plus takeoffs and landings handled annually by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers that form a critical backbone for a sector that now accounts for over 5 percent of U.S. GDP.

For something so important, would you be shocked to learn that air traffic control in practice has experienced very little change since the 1960s? Increasingly, policy makers are aware that this unfortunate status quo will be unable to meet future air travel demand and that something must be done.

In a groundbreaking new study published by the Hudson Institute, Reason Foundation founder and Director of Transportation Policy Bob Poole lays out the case for dramatically reforming air traffic control to fully take advantage of new technologies and modern management practices. Adopting these, Poole convincingly argues, will result in a large and diverse benefits, including:

  • savings in cost and time for aircraft operators and air travelers;
  • reduced airport and airspace congestion, and hence fewer constraints on continued aviation growth;
  • increased safety, thanks to more accurate information in the hands of pilots and controllers and better communications throughout the system;
  • environmental benefits, as more direct routes and low-power landings reduce fuel consumption, noise, and emissions;
  • increased exports of U.S.-developed technologies and services to the global air traffic market. (Executive Summary, p. 3)

The purpose of FAA's NextGen program is modernizing technology and increasing air traffic control efficiency. So far, however, the FAA has proven inept in its deployment. Poole identifies several institutional factors that are holding back modernization.

The main obstacle preventing us from realizing these benefits is the fundamental conflict between the FAA's role as safety regulator and its role as air traffic control provider, which has led to an overcautious culture within the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO). This is compounded by the fact that FAA's ATO faces a number of political oversight constraints, leading to it treating politicians and bureaucrats as its customers, rather than the airports and aircraft that rely upon its services. In addition, Poole cites technical "brain drain" to the private sector and an over-reliance on outside contractors as key institutional challenges.

To resolve the problems facing America's air traffic control system, Poole recommends three actions:

  1. Separate the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) from the rest of the agency, making it an ATC provider like those overseas. The new entity would be regulated at arm’s length by the remaining part of the FAA, which would become exclusively an air safety regulator. This would be analogous to the highly successful 1987 divestiture of Dulles International and Washington National Airport from the FAA to a self-funded airport authority.
  2. Shift from funding ATC from aviation user taxes—which must be appropriated each year as part of the federal budget—to charges paid by aviation customers directly to the revamped ATO, which could then issue revenue bonds for large-scale capital modernization as do airports, electric utilities, railroads, and other infrastructure providers.
  3. Provide for a governing board that represents the key aviation stakeholders, as is done with the ATC corporations in Canada and the UK. The board, representing aircraft operators, airports, and ATC employees, would set policies for the corporation, including decisions on whether new technologies and procedures have positive business cases. A model for this kind of decision making is the role played by the current NextGen Advisory Committee, which represents a broad coalition of aviation stakeholders. (Executive Summary, p. 5)

The report goes into great detail and offers seven case studies to illustrate the need for major reform. With no end in sight to the current federal budget stalemate, members of Congress from both parties would be wise to adopt Poole's recommendations. At the very least, Congress and the administration should proceed with separating air traffic control from the FAA's safety regulatory authority.

Without the dramatic changes Poole urges, the United States risks falling behind the rest of the world in aviation — and in a number of ways, it already lags developed economies in this respect. It would be a shame for the U.S. to forgo the massive potential benefits that would result from air traffic control commercialization and modernization.

Read the full study here. The Hudson Institute is also hosting a panel event tomorrow, January 16, at 10am at its D.C. headquarters, for which you can register at this link.