What others say: Air traffic control in need of reform

  • By Orange County Register editorial
  • Tuesday, June 27, 2017 10:46am
  • Opinion

The U.S. air traffic control system has fallen woefully behind most of the rest of the world, but we may finally be on the cusp of a promising reform decades in the making.

In testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month, Reason Foundation Director of Transportation Policy Robert Poole identified three main problems with our existing system. First, the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding is volatile, subject to the caprices of Congress, and hasn’t kept up with technology and large-scale capital improvement needs. Second, the governance structure suffers from too many government agencies micromanaging the system and an FAA with an inherent conflict of interest, since it is responsible for both providing services and conducting investigations of those services. And third, progress and innovation have been stifled by a risk-averse culture more interested in protecting the status quo.

One solution, which has earned support from the White House and within Congress, is to replace the FAA’s taxpayer-funded Air Traffic Organization with a federally chartered nonprofit corporation sustained by user fees. This would provide more flexibility and funding stability, including the opportunity to issue revenue bonds to finance long-term capital investments. The structure would make it similar to organizations like the American Red Cross, U.S. Olympic Committee, federal credit unions or rural electricity and telecommunications cooperatives, Poole noted.

Under the current system, “ATC is a high-tech service business that in the U.S. is trapped in a tax-funded regulatory bureaucracy,” Poole told us. “The natural incentive of a bureaucracy is to try to make sure that it looks good, and that’s not what you want.”

The nonprofit corporation model would much better align incentives to serve customers, from airlines and private pilots to, ultimately, commercial airline passengers. Crucially, it would also depoliticize funding and operations decisions.

“It creates a real customer focus,” Poole said. The existing system, by contrast, “does not put the customers in charge; it does not put their interests first” because “the FAA’s real customer is Congress.”

The idea is not so radical. In fact, more than 60 countries have adopted a form of “corporatization” over the past 30 years, leaving the U.S. as one of the relative few to do things the old way. And we do not have to look far for a positive example. Nav Canada, from our neighbor to the north, which operates the world’s second-largest air traffic system, adopted a similar format 20 years ago. In that time, its air traffic control fees have fallen 40 percent while its productivity has increased. The FAA’s unit cost of service, meanwhile, has increased by 66 percent during that time, even as flight operations have declined. Today, Nav Canada’s cost per flight hour is 26 percent lower than the FAA’s.

It is clear that our air traffic control governance structure is as antiquated as much of the technology in use. Removing anti-competitive barriers and government interventions, from allowing for greater privatization of airports to adopting market-based pricing of gate slots and runway access, would improve the U.S. air transportation system even more, but the “corporatization” of air traffic control represents a positive, and probably necessary, first step.

— The Orange County Register,

June 21

More in Opinion

An array of stickers awaits voters on Election Day 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The case for keeping the parties from controlling our elections

Neither party is about to admit that the primary system they control serves the country poorly

Voters fill out their ballots at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai, Alaska on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Voter tidbit: Important information about voting in the upcoming elections

Mark your calendar now for these upcoming election dates!

Larry Persily (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: State’s ‘what if’ lawsuit doesn’t much add up

The state’s latest legal endeavor came July 2 in a dubious lawsuit — with a few errors and omissions for poor measure

The entrance to the Homer Electric Association office is seen here in Kenai, Alaska, on May 7, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Speak up on net metering program

The program allows members to install and use certain types of renewable generation to offset monthly electric usage and sell excess power to HEA

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs bills for the state’s 2025 fiscal year budget during a private ceremony in Anchorage on Thursday, June 25, 2024. (Official photo from The Office of the Governor)
Alaska’s ‘say yes to everything’ governor is saying ‘no’ to a lot of things

For the governor’s purposes, “everything” can pretty much be defined as all industrial development

Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board members, staff and advisors meet Oct. 30, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The concerns of reasonable Alaskans isn’t ‘noise’

During a legislative hearing on Monday, CEO Deven Mitchell referred to controversy it’s created as “noise.”

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Crime pays a lot better than newspapers

I used to think that publishing a quality paper, full of accurate, informative and entertaining news would produce enough revenue to pay the bills

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023.
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

Real conservatives wouldn’t be trashing the rule of law

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict