In recent decades, many nations have partly or fully separated their air traffic control (ATC) systems from their governments. In 1996 Canada moved its ATC to a private nonprofit corporation, Nav Canada. That reform is the model for an FAA restructuring bill that just passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Air traffic control reform is long overdue. Moving ATC operations out of the government would improve efficiency and spur innovation. The benefits would include shorter flight times, fewer delays, and lower fuel costs.
Management and Technology Failures
The FAA has struggled to modernize America’s ATC system. It relies on 20th‐century technologies, such as radar and voice radio, despite the development of newer technologies, such as satellite‐based navigation. Air traffic control is a high‐technology industry, but we are still running it as an old‐fashioned bureaucracy from Washington.
In a detailed study of the FAA’s performance, economist Robert Poole found that the agency is risk averse, slow to make decisions, and mismanages procurement.1 It loses skilled people to private industry because of a lack of pay flexibility and frustration with the government work environment. Poole found that the FAA “is slow to embrace promising innovations,” and is “particularly resistant to high‐potential innovations that would disrupt its own institutional status quo.“2 That is the opposite of what is needed in a dynamic technology‐based industry.
Dorothy Robyn, a policy expert in the Clinton and Obama administrations, examined ATC reforms in a Brookings Institution study. She concluded, “As a traditional government agency constrained by federal budget rules and micromanaged by Congress, the FAA is poorly suited to run what amounts to a capital‐intensive, high‐tech service business.“3
Robyn argues that Congress has “long blocked large‐scale consolidation of the FAA’s aging and inefficient facilities” and it “micromanages FAA spending on investment and maintenance.“4 Members of Congress have intervened to save FAA jobs in their districts, and they have required the FAA “to procure certain hardware and encouraged it to select certain contractors.“5 The FAA’s “zombie” air traffic control towers that receive little night traffic are another example of pork‐barrel waste.6
These problems can be solved by separating ATC from direct federal control. That would also solve the conflict of interest arising from the FAA both operating ATC and overseeing aviation safety. Splitting off ATC operations would increase transparency because hidden decisions now made internally within the FAA would be made public.7 Such a separation is recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
In coming years, rising demands for air travel are expected to severely strain the FAA. Our airspace is getting crowded, and our antiquated ATC is causing delays and wasting fuel. Transitioning to new ATC technologies would increase safety, while also raising airspace capacity and saving fuel by allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes. New technologies would also reduce the number of needed ATC facilities.
However, those benefits remain elusive because the FAA has struggled to upgrade its system. A 2005 auditor’s report stated: “For more than two decades, ATC system acquisitions under the National Airspace System modernization program have experienced significant cost growth, schedule delays, and performance problems.“8 A 2012 auditor’s report found that half of FAA’s major acquisition programs were behind schedule.9 A 2016 auditor’s report found that several critical programs “remain over budget and behind schedule due to overambitious plans, unresolved requirements, software development problems, ineffective contract management, and unreliable cost and schedule estimates.“10
The FAA has made some advances, but the 2016 auditor’s report found that its “total budget, operations budget, and compensation costs have doubled while operational productivity … has decreased substantially.“11 Another recent report found shortcomings in the FAA’s workforce management, including too few qualified controllers at numerous major airports.12
A report from the U.S. Travel Association warned that our “air traffic control system uses technology from the World War II era that causes systematic delays and cancellations,” and that upgrades remain “mired by setbacks, cost overruns and delays as a result of FAA mismanagement” and budget cuts.13 A report from the Eno Center for Transportation found that “many stakeholders are losing confidence in FAA’s ability to move forward” with technology upgrades.14
Gains from Privatization
Dozens of nations have restructured their air traffic control systems to separate them from their government budgets. Canada privatized its system in 1996 in the form of a self‐funded nonprofit corporation, Nav Canada. That reform caught the eye of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), who has introduced legislation to transfer our ATC to an “independent, not‐for‐profit corporation” that would have a “self‐sustaining, cost‐based user fee structure.“15
The Canadian reform has been very successful. Nav Canada has won three International Air Transport Association (IATA) Eagle Awards as the world’s best ATC provider.16 The IATA says Nav Canada is a “global leader in delivering top‐class performance,” and its “strong track record of working closely with its customers to improve performance through regular and meaningful consultations, combined with technical and operational investments supported by extensive cost‐benefit analysis, place it at the forefront of the industry’s air navigation service providers.“17
In Canada, funding was changed from a government ticket tax to direct charges on aircraft operators for services provided. Nav Canada revenues come from charges for flying through Canadian airspace and for terminal services at airports. Those cost‐based charges are a more efficient way to price ATC services than the U.S. system, which is mainly based on ticket taxes. Dorothy Robyn notes that our fee system biases airlines in favor of multiple small jets for many routes, when a single larger jet would be more efficient from an ATC perspective.18
Nav Canada is a private monopoly, so there might be concerns that its user charges would rise excessively. But that has not happened. Indeed, Nav Canada’s real customer charges have fallen by one‐third over the past decade, as efficiency has increased.19 The system is handling 50 percent more traffic than before privatization, but with 30 percent fewer employees.20 One reason for the good performance is that airlines and other aviation stakeholders have seats on Nav Canada’s corporate board, and those stakeholders have a strong interest in increasing both efficiency and safety.
People may also be concerned that an institution such as ATC should be open and transparent, and privatization can achieve that. Nav Canada publishes reports detailing its financial, operating, and safety metrics, and it runs one of the safest systems in the world. One key metric—losses of separation—has been cut in half since privatization, as safety has improved.21
Another advantage of privatization is innovation. Nav Canada is praised for its development of new technologies. Robert Poole said, “the technical expertise at Nav Canada has led to a thriving business marketing innovative ATC hardware and software and advising other air navigation service providers.“22 Nav Canada’s former chairman said the company has “sold and installed our home‐grown technology around the world from Australia to Hong Kong to Dubai, and all over the UK and Europe.“23
In Senate hearings in 2015, the head of the U.S. National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) described some of Canada’s advantages: