Donald Trump proposed to reform air traffic control today, and reaction to it seems to break down largely along party lines (except that the air traffic controllers union is supportive).
I’m torn by some of the specifics, but not about the problem. US air traffic control is antiquated, leads to delays and fewer flights, and is one of the major things creating frustrations about air travel today – why many flights take longer than they did 20 years ago. And the system isn’t prepared for major outages.
Attempts to modernize air traffic control have floundered for 30 years. We still largely use radar rather than GPS, voice rather than digital communication, and actually continue to use paper flight strips (including changes that are hand written) rather than electronic data to manage traffic flow.
The federal Government Accountability Office and Department of Transportation have documented the failures of air traffic control over and over in both Democrat and Republican administrations.
- The proposal is not privatization. Instead the proposal is simply to split safety regulation (remaining with the federal government) and service provision (management of air traffic control by a non-profit with a stakeholder board). UK air traffic control is actually partially privatized (and heavily regulated), that’s not what’s being proposed here.
- This is how over 50 countries do it, with great success. NavCanada is more cost efficient than the FAA, and has seen costs falling (a 30% drop in inflation-adjusted cost) while the the FAA budget has grown by 95% between 1996 and 2015, and there has been no overall gain in ATC productivity (air traffic control costs have risen 71% since 1997).
- The FAA’s Office of Inspector General finds that attempts to modernize air traffic control have flushed billions of dollars, and are unlikely to improve because FAA management and procurement problems are systemic.
- Twenty six years after NavCanada rolled out electronic flight strips — in 2028 – 89 US FAA facilities are projected to use them.
Copyright: cylonphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Separating the role of safety regulator from actual service provider makes sense. The FAA doesn’t fly the planes and shouldn’t be the one directing where they fly either. ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, identified splitting these roles as a best safety practice in 2001 and the U.S. remains “one of the few developed countries not in compliance with arm’s-length safety regulation.”
In last year’s proposal fewer than a third of board seats would be selected by the airlines. American and United favor the plan, Delta opposes it. Delta benefits from congestion in New York which keeps out competition and their older planes would require greater investment to meet digital air traffic control requirements.
Air traffic control is hardly the only thing wrong in aviation, it may not even be the number one thing, but it’s definitely a thing. It’s why all the investment in airport infrastructure at New York LaGuardia (and maybe eventually JFK) will be largely for naught.
The model here is Canadian air traffic control, which does a phenomenal job by world standards. It’s hardly a panacea, maybe not even the best we can do, but better than what we have.
It’s not obvious that we’ll get this, we may see it move through the House Transportation Committee but the current administration has much on its plate and not a great deal of legislative accomplishment so far under its belt.