Tag: air traffic control

Air Traffic Control: Too Important for Government

The government’s air traffic controllers have been sleeping on the job, watching movies rather than guiding planes, and misdirecting the First Lady’s plane over Washington. There have been soaring numbers of airplane near misses caused by ATC errors over the last year.

Yesterday, the president said that federal government technology systems are “horrible” “across-the-board,” which isn’t good news for citizens hoping that the Federal Aviation Administration’s computers will land them safely.

The government’s air traffic controllers are very highly compensated, but they are unionized and they work for a mismanaged bureaucracy. The federal ATC system has had serious labor and management problems since the 1960s. And the president’s comment on technology rings true with regard to ATC – the FAA has had huge troubles for decades efficiently implementing new technologies. And things could get worse as air traffic volumes rise and the FAA struggles to implement next generation ATC systems.

The solution is privatization, as discussed in this essay and these blogs. Privatization promises better management, a more disciplined workforce, more efficient financing, better technology, and safer skies.

Republican Agenda: Privatization

In coming months, new Republican members of Congress will be looking for ways to cut the budget deficit and also to increase economic growth. One way to do both is to privatize government assets, such as the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, and the air traffic control system.

Privatization can reduce deficits from the one-time gain of an asset sale and from the elimination of annual taxpayer subsidies. Privatization can spur economic growth by moving resources from moribund government agencies to the higher-productivity and more innovative private sector.

A new report by a trade magazine specializing in privatization confirms that the United States lags many nations on innovative infrastructure financing. Public Works Financing has been tallying data on “public-private partnerships” around the world since 1985. PPP is sort of half way toward the full privatization of government assets such as highways. I prefer full privatization (such as this highway), but PPP has swept the world in recent years and it is a step in the direction of market reform.

Public Works Financing is subscription only, but I can summarize a few findings from their October annual survey.

  • Since 1985, the magazine has tallied 1,867 PPP infrastructure projects worldwide valued at $712 billion. U.S. projects represented just 8 percent of the total value.
  • With a population about 10 percent as large as the United States, Canada had 53 percent of the U.S. PPP deal value. With a population of a similar size as the United States, Europe has had five times the value of PPP deals.
  • Of the 35 top global transportation firms doing PPP deals, the United States had only one firm, Flour, which was ranked number 33. Countries with firms heavily involved in PPP include Spain, Australia, China, and France. American entrepreneurs are apparently losing out because U.S. policymakers are asleep at the switch regarding private sector infrastructure financing.

Examples of PPP in the United States include the project to widen the Capital Beltway in Virginia, which involves the firms Transurban and Flour, and the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road, which involves Cintra and Macquarie. These deals aren’t full privatization, but they will hopefully bring some market efficiencies into an area of the economy dominated by the government over the last half century.

Congress is expected to write a major transportation authorization bill next year. The likely GOP chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, has a more favorable view of private infrastructure than the prior Democratic chairmen. However, it is not clear that some of the incoming Republicans really understand the anti-spending message that voters delivered on Tuesday. Regarding President Obama’s $8 billion in wasteful high-speed rail subsidies, Mica did not call for killing them, but just for making them “better directed.”

The election ended the debate over whether to cut federal spending, but the debate about cutting particular programs has just begun.

Canada’s Private ATC Wins Award

Canada’s private air traffic control system, Nav Canada, recently received its second “Eagle Award” from the International Air Transport Association. The Eagle Awards “honor air navigation service providers and airports for outstanding performance in customer satisfaction, cost efficiency, and continuous improvement.”

In naming Nav Canada “the best” ATC, the IATA said the following in its press release:

Nav Canada is a global leader in the efficient implementation and reliable delivery of air traffic control procedures and technologies. It actively engages its customers at all levels in regular and meaningful consultations. “The performance of Nav Canada has been enhanced by the right technical and operational investments following extensive cost/benefit analyses. Nav Canada’s effective management has allowed the company to reduce its charges in 2006 and 2007, and freeze them at that level ever since,” Bisignani said.

Unlike the government-run ATC system in the U.S., Nav Canada is a privately run, not-for-profit corporation. As a Cato essay on privatization explains, the U.S. system leaves a lot to be desired while the private Canadian system has been a tremendous success:

The Federal Aviation Administration has been mismanaged for decades and provides Americans with second-rate air traffic control. The FAA has struggled to expand capacity and modernize its technology, and its upgrade efforts have often fallen behind schedule and gone over budget…The GAO has had the FAA on its watch list of wasteful “high-risk” agencies for years…Canada privatized its ATC system in 1996. It set up a private, nonprofit ATC corporation, Nav Canada, which is self-supporting from charges on aviation users. The Canadian system has received high marks for sound finances, solid management, and investment in new technologies.

Critics of privatization claim that it’s “too risky” to place such activities in the hands of the private sector. Canada’s success undermines that argument. In fact, air traffic control is far too important for such government mismanagement and should therefore be privatized. In doing so, policymakers should look to our neighbors to the north as a model for how to get the job done right.

See this Cato essay for more on airports and air traffic control.

Air Traffic Control Troubles

A computer glitch in the Federal Aviation Administration’s national air traffic control system caused delays and cancelations last Thursday. A spokesperson for the air traffic control employees union called it a “nightmare.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the nation’s ATC system is “in shambles” and called for more “resources, manpower, and technology” for the FAA.

The FAA is already trying to implement a $35 billion overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system that would replace old-fashioned radar technology with modern satellite-based GPS navigation. As I blogged last month, the FAA tried to deploy the new computer system at the first of twenty regional facilities, but the system misidentified an airliner and was shut down. This failure wasn’t surprising considering the FAA’s decades of mismanagement.

This week Reason TV released an excellent video on the nation’s air traffic control system, which can be viewed here. The video effectively illustrates broader, more fundamental problems with the way the government operates. For instance, the FAA needs to upgrade is ATC systems, members of Congress spend millions of taxpayer dollars on seldom-used airports in their district.

The video also highlights the fact that our neighbors to the north have already successfully privatized their air traffic control system. As a Cato essay on privatization notes, “The Canadian system has received high marks for sound finances, solid management, and investment in new technologies.”

Federal Wages Fly High

Yahoo News is highlighting the story “10 Jobs With High Pay and Minimal Schooling.” Topping the list: air traffic controllers, who work for the federal government.

These workers make sure airplanes land and take off safely, and they typically top lists of this nature. The median 50% earned between $86,860-142,210, with good benefits. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, or after 25 years at any age.

Huge salaries and retirement after 20 years – sweet deal!

Air traffic controllers seem to provide a good illustration of my general claim that federal workers are overpaid.

I don’t know what the proper pay level for controllers is, but I do know that we should privatize the system, as Canada has, and let the market figure it out.

Uncle Sam a Generous Boss

Federal unions, government officials, and the Washington Post’s “Federal Diary” column frequently suggest that federal civilian workers are underpaid. They suffer from a large “pay gap” compared to private sector workers, or so the story goes.

But in the Post’s “Jobs” section yesterday, human resources specialist Lily Garcia argues that “Uncle Sam Is a Boss You Can Rely On.” For job seekers, Garcia points to the many advantages of federal work:

  • “Generous benefits, solid pay, and relative job security – a combination that is challenging to find in the private sector, even in the best of times.”
  • The “widest selection of health-care plans of any U.S. employer.”
  • “Liberal amounts of paid time off.”
  • Very lucrative retirement benefits.
  • Family-friendly policies such as “first priority and subsidies at a number of top-notch day-care facilities.”
  • “Federal employees are paid relatively well … [and] practically guaranteed periodic within-grade pay raises.”
  • Finally, “federal employees cannot be unceremoniously fired.” I’ve found that only about 1 in 5,000 federal civilian workers are fired each year due to poor performance. 

Is the lack of firing a result of the superb quality of the federal workforce and superior management practices? Hardly. Garcia notes that the downside of working for Uncle Sam is that the government “has its fair share of bullies, sycophants and incompetents who pick on employees, display favoritism, mismanage operations and find creative ways to manipulate the rules to their advantage.” I’d guess more than its fair share. Since federal workers are rarely fired, the ranks of non-performing managers and workers grows over time, contributing to the bureaucratic ineptitude we are all familiar with in the federal government.

To improve workforce efficiency, I’ve suggested privatizing as many federal activities as possible, include postal services, air traffic control, and passenger rail. To cut costs, I’ve suggested a federal wage freeze and a cut in federal benefits as part of a plan to reduce federal budget deficits.  

For more from Lily Garcia, see here. For more from me, see here.