Fixing Air Traffic Control in the United States

Reason.tv‘s video, Your Flight Has Been Delayed… And It’s Washington’s Fault makes the case for folowing Canada’s lead and prviatizing Air Traffic Control. 

Of course this weekend’s delays weren’t Washington’s fault. But certainly transportation funding priorities are out of whack, air traffic control technologies are terribly outdated, and Canada’s private model seems to operate better (in spite of more snow up North!).

That said, I’ve long wanted to imrpove plane-to-plane communications and make planes more like cars

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. That video and those comments were made either by someone with an agenda or someone who doesn’t have a clue.

    ATC in the U.S. is more advanced and works better than in most countries (certainly including Canada). It’s not outdated. Privatization hasn’t worked _anywhere_. It’s driven up costs dramatically without any benefits. There’s been a battle in D.C. over privatizing ATC for a long time, and luckily, it hasn’t happened. It would be a shame as we’d destroy one of the greatest ATC systems in the world.

    All that said, ATC generally has nothing whatsoever to do with delays. The term “ATC delay” is an oxymoron, invented by airlines to deflect blame from themselves. It’s sort of like criticizing the Highway Patrol for traffic jams.

    The real problem is that airlines often schedule more flights for a period of time that an airport can handle. SFO, for example, can push out 1 plane/minute if conditions are good (and this is according to NorCal Approach (NCT Tracon), which handles the airspace around SFO. Given separation criteria under IFT, more planes aren’t possible. There are times when the airlines schedule more than 60 flights per hour, though, full well knowing that this isn’t doable. It’s not ATC – or anyone else’s fault – it’s the airlines and the problem is with available runway real estate and overscheduling.

  2. @Felix totally misses the point – the REASON that more aircraft can’t be pushed through is limitations of air traffic systems broadly conceived.

    Improve the technology and you COULD push more planes through. The separation criteria is necessary precisely because of the existing constraints.

  3. @Gary

    Sorry, I’ve got to disagree. I love your blog ,but you’re wrong on this issue. I fly in this system almost every day, and I have flown in other countries quite a bit. I can tell you that the US is second to none when it comes to ATC professionalism, courtesy, and lack of bureaucratic overhead. We’re ahead of other countries in terms of technologies, too. Try flying in Europe, Canada, Australia, and I’ll bet you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    It’s not a technology issue. Sure, with much better automation, lots of issues would be resolved, but that is decades out. The delays _right now_ are caused by employers such as my own, and not by ATC.

    Not interested in arguing or convincing you. You’ve apparently made up your mind based on very incomplete information. Just telling you what I’m (and my colleagues) are seeing.

    -Felix

  4. I agree with Felix, whoever made that video has no idea what the hell they’re talking about. So what if the system is still using little white cards after so many years, we been using the wheel for tens of thousands of years, should we get rid of it?

    And Privatization is a terrible idea, what give private companies the ability to just “buy what ever they want”, and if they do, the passengers will end up paying the bill anyways, and probably with a large premium compare to the public system. And do we make just one or multiple companies running the show? If we just have one, its going to be a monopoly, with no incentive to innovate and it will be making huge profits. If we have competing companies, how do we set and monitor the standard, and do we ensure planes are being transfered correctly from one the control system of one company to the next? And with the huge amount of power ATC has on airline operations, what’s to stop airlines paying for preferential service?

    With that said, ATC is the cause of ATC delays, you really think its good business for airlines schedule planes knowing they’ll be delayed, so what if they can put the blame on someone else, customers will still be pissed off, and they still have to pay the crew for the delayed hours, besides how is United responsible for keeping the total number of aircrafts departing below 60 an hours, its not like they’re the only airline out of SFO. If there’s demand for higher 60 flights per hour out of SFO, then there’s a need to increase capacity, and the bottleneck happens to be ATC, because the tracking systems are so inaccurate, and they humans operating the system are likely to make mistakes, there has to be a wide margin for error, if improving the ATC system will decrease the need of a safety distance between planes and allow more planes to take off, then guess what, the Current ATC system is the problem.

    But after all, what it comes down to is money, it’ll costs tens of billions to update the entire system, and who’s going to end up paying for it, passengers, and the reason it still hasn’t happened is because improving the system will simply add too much to the cost of tickets.

  5. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation in that piece. I’m not going to go into all of it at this moment, but for starters the FAA has reduced vertical airspace separation requirements and no, they don’t control with the old strips anymore.

    What the story misses is the basic issue …all planes want to leave at peak times, all planes want to take the same direct routes. So you now have a bunch of planes in the sky (yes, we can put lots of planes in the sky), but where do you land them? How many runways are being built? ATC can fly planes closer together, but without runways and gate space it doesn’t do a bit of good.

    BTW, as far as private companies providing a safer system, the story conveniently ignores the mid-air over Switzerland that was being controlled by controllers from the private ATC company Skyguide. Four managers of the company were found guilty of manslaughter.

    I like reason magazine, but they blew it here. And it’s apparently old since Carr was replaced as NATCA president in 2006.

  6. Check out fifthestate.ca documentary on why privitization is not such a great idea. Letting the fox guard the hen house rarely is.

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