Tag: federal aviation administration

It’s Plane Pork

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has identified another budget zombie. This time it’s an obscure grant program administered by the Federal Aviation Administration that dumps money on tiny airports with scant activity. 

From the article: 

Along a country road in southern Oklahoma, there is a place that doesn’t make sense. It is an airport without passengers. 

Or, for that matter, planes. 

This is Lake Murray State Park Airport, one of the least busy of the nation’s 3,300-plus public airfields. In an entire week here, there might be one landing and one takeoff — often so pilots can use the bathroom. Or none at all. Visiting pilots are warned to watch out for deer on the runway. 

So why is it still open? Mostly, because the U.S. government insists on sending it money. 

Every year, Oklahoma is allotted $150,000 in federal funding because of this place, the result of a grant program established 13 years ago, in Congress’s golden age of pork. The same amount goes to hundreds of other tiny airfields across the country — including more than 80 like this one, with no paying customers and no planes based at the field. 

And why does the federal government insist on sending Lake Murray—and other seldom used airports—money? 

In the years since 2000, pork has gone far out of fashion in American politics. But this program has remained strikingly difficult for anyone — from Washington to Oklahoma City — to kill. 

President George W. Bush, more than once, proposed budget cuts that would have ended the program. In 2011, Coburn suggested making states share more of the costs. Instead, last February, Congress kept the program in place when it reauthorized the FAA. 

Budget watchdog groups say these airport entitlements are in a league with the Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial flights to small places — and Amtrak. Their services are spread wide enough to give them a strong base in Congress. 

One constantly hears the cries that the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) isn’t “investing” enough money on “our crumbling infrastructure.” Yet this is precisely what happens when you put politicians in charge of allocating resources: decisions are largely made on the basis of political and parochial concerns rather than sound economic and financial considerations. 

(See this Cato essay for more on federal involvement in airports and air traffic control.)  

Addendum: Fahrenthold notes that former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA) engineered the “carpet-bombing” of money from this program to congressional districts far and wide. His son, Bill Shuster, now heads the same committee and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. So don’t expect this zombie to finally be put down anytime soon. 

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.

Budget Cuts Look Familiar

What do these federal agencies and programs have in common?

Agricultural Research Service, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Rural Development programs, Women, Infants & Children, Foreign Agricultural Service, National Institute of Standards & Technology, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Economic Development Administration, National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Small Business Administration, State Department foreign aid, Fund for African Development, International Development assistance, Economic Support Fund, Peacekeeping Operations, Trade Development Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Forest System, Appalachian Regional Commission, Department of Energy administration, Fossil Energy Research & Development, energy conservation programs, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, Community Service Employment for Older Americans, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Administration on Aging, Youthbuild, Adult Education, programs for K-12 and higher education, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, rail subsidies, Federal Transit Administration, Financial Management Service, Veterans Affairs construction projects, Housing Counseling Assistance, public housing programs, Community Development Financial Institutions Funds, Corporation for National & Community Service, Legal Services Corporation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

They were all cut in 1995 under a rescissions package engineered by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and cut last week in the budget agreement reached by Republican and Democratic leaders.

The lesson here is that there’s a big difference between spending cuts and terminating entire agencies and their programs. Like the mythological Hydra, the stump has to be burned after the head is cut off or else it’ll grow back.

Just as they did back in 1995, Republicans are doing a lot of talking about cutting the size of the federal government. However, they aren’t doing much talking about reducing the scope of the federal government’s activities. The Gingrich Republicans failed to reduce the scope of federal activities, and the result was a bipartisan spending orgy that has left the country’s finances in shambles. We literally can’t afford for history to repeat itself.

Privatize the FAA

Bloomberg is reporting more bad news for the nation’s air traffic control system, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is $500 million overbudget and six years behind schedule on a $2.1 billion technology upgrade project.

The FAA has a long history of mismanaged technology projects, and so the latest screw-ups are nothing new. Yet the nation needs high-tech advances in air traffic control more than ever to ease our increasingly congested airspaces.

There is a better way to run air traffic control—a private sector way, as Canada has been demonstrating. In 1996, Canada converted its government air traffic control system to a private nonprofit corporation. Nav Canada has been a smashing success, providing an excellent model for possible U.S. reforms.

A December 24 story in the Financial Post describes how Nav Canada is a world leader in efficiency, safety, and technology under private management. “A once troubled government asset, the country’s civil air traffic controller was privatized 14 years ago and is now a shining example of how to create a global technology leader out of a hulking government bureaucracy.” It really is an impressive story of pro-market reform.  

Canada’s system recently won an award from the International Air Transport Association. The IATA said that “Nav Canada is a global leader in the efficient implementation and reliable delivery of air traffic control procedures and technologies.”

We should have that type of efficient air traffic control system in this country. Privatizing the FAA should be a high priority for the next Congress.

See here for a discussion on privatizing air traffic control.

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.

FAA Says Wasteful Spending ‘All Good’

It’s not uncommon to hear the claim made that the “stimulus” would have had a greater economic impact had the money been focused on infrastructure. But proponents of public “investment” in infrastructure seem to forget that the government allocates capital on the basis of politics rather than economics. Government is naturally inefficient because it is immune to the market signals that guide private actors who stand to lose their own money should an investment not pan out.

A perfect example is federal spending on airport infrastructure. The USA Today’s Thomas Frank has been doing good work looking at how the Federal Aviation Administration distributes funds to the nation’s airports. In his latest piece, Frank analyzed FAA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and found that taxpayer money is being put to questionable use:

Airports have spent $3.5 billion in federal money since 1998 on projects the Federal Aviation Administration rated as low priority because they do little to improve the most pressing needs in the nation’s aviation system…The money comes from a program that is supposed to improve aviation safety…But the program also has funded terminals at little-used airports, hangars to store private jets, and parking areas that are free to customers.

For example, Frank reports on Pellston Regional Airport in Michigan, which “used $7.5 million in federal funds to build a terminal with stone fireplaces and cathedral ceilings. The airport averages three departures a day.”

But the FAA sees it differently:

‘They’re all good projects,’ said Catherine Lang, FAA acting associate administrator for airports.

C@L readers who get stuck in congested airports this holiday season may wish to keep that quote in mind.

In a sister piece, Frank quotes Lang as saying that the terminals at these airports are “crumbling, loaded with asbestos and have no other source [of money].” If airport infrastructure in this country is truly crumbling, then why is the FAA expending scarce resources on stone fireplaces?

Frank cites more examples:

  • Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Kentucky got $3.5 million to build a glass-fronted terminal in 2004 that was largely unused until the first passenger flights began this June. The airport now has six flights a week.
  • Montgomery Regional Airport in Alabama got $22 million to build a $35 million terminal with a sloping glass facade and a rotunda topped with a domed ceiling that reflects the historical architecture of the state Capitol.
  • Halliburton Field Airport in Duncan, Okla., got $700,000 for a terminal with a pilot room and a reception room. The airport, open only to private planes, has 24 landings and takeoffs a day, mostly local pilots in piston-engine planes.

We should be looking to privatize infrastructure as this Cato op-ed states:

First, privatization would reduce the responsibilities of the government so that policymakers could better focus on their core responsibilities, such as national security. Second, there is vast foreign privatization experience that could be drawn upon in pursuing U.S. reforms. Third, privatization would spur economic growth by opening new markets to entrepreneurs.

I suppose the drawback would be that politicians would be denied the fun of spending other people’s money, not to mention the campaign contributions.

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.”