The federal government operates the air traffic control (ATC) system as an old-fashioned bureaucracy, even though ATC is a high-tech business. It’s as if the government took over Apple Computer and tried to design breakthrough products. The government would surely screw it up, which is the situation today with ATC run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
A day after the Federal Aviation Administration celebrated the latest success in its $40 billion modernization of the air-traffic control system, the agency was hit Friday by the most scathing criticism to date for the pace of its efforts.
The FAA has frustrated Congress and been subject to frequent critical reports as it struggles to roll out the massive and complex system called NextGen, but the thorough condemnation in a study released Friday by the National Academies was unprecedented.
Mincing no words, the panel of 10 academic experts brought together by the academy’s National Research Council (NRC) said the FAA was not delivering the system that had been promised and should “reset expectations” about what it is delivering to the public and the airlines that use the system.
The “success” the WaPo initially refers to is a component of NextGen that was four years behind schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. That is success for government work I suppose.
The NRC’s findings come on the heels of other critical reports and years of FAA failings. The failings have become so routine—and the potential benefits of improved ATC so large— that even moderate politicians, corporate heads, and bureaucratic insiders now support major reforms:
“We will never get there on the current path,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said two months ago at a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill. “We’ve spent $6 billion on NextGen, but the airlines have seen few benefits.”
American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker added, “FAA’s modernization efforts have been plagued with delays.”
And David Grizzle, former head of the FAA’s air-traffic control division, said taking that division out of FAA hands “is the only means to create a stable” future for the development of NextGen.
The reform we need is ATC privatization. Following the leads of Canada and Britain, we should move the entire ATC system to a private and self-supporting nonprofit corporation. The corporation would cover its costs by generating revenues from customers—the airlines—which would make it more responsible for delivering results.
Here is an interesting finding from the NRC report: “Airlines are not motivated to spend money on equipment and training for NextGen.” Apparently, the airlines do not trust the government to do its part, and so progress gets stalled because companies cannot be sure their investments will pay off. So an advantage of privatization would be to create a more trustworthy ATC partner for the users of the system.
ATC privatization should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to forge a bipartisan legislative success. In Canada, the successful ATC privatization was enacted by a Liberal government and supported by the subsequent Conservative government. So let’s use the Canadian system as a model, and move ahead with ATC reform and modernization.