Well-Heeled Fliers Against Air-Traffic Reform

The City Journal quotes Marc Scribner on the influence the NBAA has in preventing federal reform and modernization of air traffic control.

Members of Congress are about to face a tough choice: should they vote to replace America’s scandalously antiquated air-traffic control system with one that would be safer and cheaper, reduce the federal deficit, conserve fuel, ease congestion in the skies, and speed travel for tens of millions of airline passengers? Or should they maintain the status quo to please the lobbyists representing owners of corporate jets?

If that choice doesn’t sound difficult, then you don’t know the power that corporate jet-setters wield in Congress. They’re the consummate Washington crony capitalists: shameless enough to demand that their private flights be subsidized by the masses who fly coach, savvy enough to stymie reforms backed by Democratic and Republican administrations.

While the rest of the industrialized world has been modernizing air-traffic control, the United States remains mired in technology from the mid-twentieth century. Controllers and pilots rely on ground-based radar and radio beacons instead of GPS satellites. They communicate by voice over crowded radio channels because the federal government still hasn’t figured out how to use text messaging. The computers in control towers are so primitive that controllers track planes by passing around slips of paper.

This archaic system is run by the Federal Aviation Administration, whose modernization program is hopelessly behind schedule and over budget. Reformers want the United States to follow the example of more than 60 countries by taking managerial authority away from the government’s transportation agency. The FAA would still carry out its main function as an aviation safety regulator, but it can do that job better if it’s not also running the system—a dangerous conflict of interest.

The Trump administration is pushing Congress this month to turn over the air-traffic control system to a not-for-profit corporation supported by user fees instead of tax dollars. It would resemble Nav Canada, which has won high praise from the aviation community for modernizing Canada’s system while reducing costs. Nav Canada’s controllers use GPS technology and text messaging, as do the controllers at the corporation that has taken over the United Kingdom’s system.

Robert W. Poole, Jr., the Reason Foundation transportation analyst who has led the reform effort for decades, explains the political problem by invoking “the tyranny of the status quo,” a Milton Friedman phrase.  “The obstacle to reform is all the people in the status quo who stand to lose, starting with the members of Congress who now micromanage the FAA and control its appropriations,” Poole says. “The business-jet and private-plane people incorrectly fear that they would no longer get a practically free ride. There’s huge fear and opposition in rural states and small cities that have been bamboozled into thinking that their control towers are at risk.”

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), a corporate-jet trade group, has largely organized and funded this resistance. Business jets consume more than 10 percent of all air-traffic control services, but their fuel taxes cover only 1 percent of the FAA’s budget. These business flyers are being subsidized by taxes on airline passengers, and the NBAA has fought every attempt to curtail their freeloading.

“Tax records indicate that NBAA provides nearly all of the funding for these front groups and that they’re operated by NBAA employees or contractors,” says Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “These groups have been trotting out an interesting cast of characters—from former astronauts to ‘Hero of the Hudson’ Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger—to spread lies about air traffic control reform in a desperate attempt to maintain NBAA’s unfair and outsized political influence over U.S. aviation.”

Read the full article at the City Journal.