1960’s Era Air Traffic Control Due For A Major Face-Lift

Last week I was in familiar territory—leveling off at 38,000 feet somewhere over the Midwest’s rural patchwork. I travel frequently and I actually enjoy it. I like flying and airports. Crying babies? I’ve been there; I simply ignore them. Talkative seatmates? Yep, ignore them too. And to the lady behind me, yes I’m putting my seat back. I paid for it, so just go away, world.

Now, I readily understand the benefit of being an “elite” traveler with a particular airline. It greatly eases the hassles of rescheduling, boarding, and even the occasional misplaced bag. It’s all made possible by the wonder of private enterprise. But even in the areas of air travel that government controls we can see market dynamics at work—or not.

Take the TSA’s Precheck program. It may be another way for the government to extract another $100 from us for the “privilege” of enjoying what airport security used to be like—and a reminder that government takeovers of privately provided services never benefit consumers—but it does save me time. I’m willing to pay for that, and I do.

But what if you cannot pay for something even if you want to? And all that’s available to you is a one-size-fits-all option? That’s the case in the United States air traffic control system. It has changed very little in the past 50 years and it’s due for a major facelift. As my colleague Marc Scribner recently wrote:

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.

The Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole has charted a course out of this morass in a new study. Drawing on examples of successful reforms from some 50 other countries, Poole recommends we begin by separating the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) dual missions of managing the nation’s air traffic control system from that of promoting air safety. This has proved hugely beneficial in countries like Canada and New Zealand over the past 20 years.

Right now, the FAA’s authority over air traffic control has led to an overcautious and politicized bureaucracy. Thus, the FAA has been treating politicians and self-anointed “stakeholders” as its “customers,” rather than their actual customers—the airlines, airports, and travelers that rely upon their air navigation services.

Moving away from the combined air traffic control/safety regulator model would also allow the newly independent air navigation service provider to seek consistent and efficient revenue streams. Currently, annual appropriations fights lead to huge delays and cost overruns. Adopting customer charges would be a significant improvement over the endless begging for revenue that FAA bureaucrats must do before Congress.

In addition, new technologies mean there is less need for “direct sight” flight control facilities at airports, since video and GPS could allow “tower” controllers to operate out of regular old (and far cheaper) buildings with computer monitors instead of windows. So, modernization means facilities consolidation. And it also means they may not be struck by lightning. (Hey, sometimes the little things matter.)

Unfortunately, the status quo is preventing the United States from adopting the latest in air traffic management technologies. As we have learned from the experiences of other countries around the world, a commercialized air traffic manager can more easily and cheaply procure and roll out new technologies, like GPS-based navigation. These in turn, allow for consolidation of facilities, more efficient use of airspace, and improved safety—all while saving customers money, reducing pollution, and alleviating airport and airspace congestion.

Private industry understands an important element of the market—institutions matter. The institutions governing markets are crucial. Markets are complex and ever changing. People respond to incentives created by institutions. Therefore, minor changes in market institutions can have far-reaching, difficult-to-see effects—both positive and negative.

Time and again, government fails to understand this. With a nudge from Bob Poole and others, however, maybe lightning will strike twice.