Politics & Policy

Mayday For Aviation

It's time to privatize Air Traffic Control.

As American Airlines attempts to pull itself out of the death-spiral that has captured several air carriers, the Senate is set to consider FAA re-authorization. Having authorized $18 billion of taxpayer money in the last 18 months to shore up the airlines, one could be forgiven for assuming that Congress would be feverishly searching solutions to the current aviation disaster. Instead, union-friendly Democratic members of the powerful transportation committees in both houses have introduced bills that would restrict efforts to reform our broken aviation system by requiring that Air Traffic Control (ATC) remain a government function.

Airline delays have fallen dramatically since 9/11, but that change is not due to improved ATC efficiency. In fact, the FAA is every bit as costly, broken, and inefficient as it was when air traffic delays reached epidemic proportions in 2000 and 2001. A comparison of full-year 2000 and 2002 departure and on-time-arrival data reveals that while total flights dropped by nearly 12 percent, delays were reduced by less than 10 percent. It is likely that once air traffic returns to historic levels, an epidemic of delays may return and conditions may be even worse than the abysmal levels of 2000 and early 2001.

The economy will not remain mired in a slump forever, and as the threat of terror dissipates, air travel is likely to increase and even surpass historical levels. In addition, the success of low-cost airlines like Southwest and Jet Blue is also likely to keep airfares low and increase traffic by making air travel even more accessible to Americans of modest means. Increased use of smaller, more efficient regional jets could likewise exacerbate delays as more jets are used to carry equivalent numbers of passengers. If Congress does nothing to fix ATC, the U.S. could go from airline slump to aviation gridlock in short order.

Twenty-nine nations including Canada have commercialized ATC operations and have experienced marked improvements in service and substantial financial savings. Canada has made the most aggressive reforms by creating a non-profit, fully privatized organization to manage its ATC system. Privatization has allowed the Canadian system, known as Nav Canada, to modernize much more rapidly than the FAA, create user fees that are 35 percent lower than previous customer charges, and improve safety by separating ATC operations from safety regulation.

With airline passengers in the U.S. facing a dizzying array of ticket taxes, flight-segment taxes, security fees, passenger facility charges, and more, any reduction in this burden would be welcome. The cost savings for U.S. airline passengers of privatizing ATC functions would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Lessening the tax burden on airline passengers and creating a more efficient aviation system could both stimulate the airlines and lead to a rebound in the travel sector.

Although the move to “governmentalize” ATC is being portrayed as a “security measure,” the real purpose is to curry favor with labor unions. For example, both Nav Canada and the FAA successfully coordinated their efforts on 9/11. The real opposition to privatization comes from labor unions that feel threatened by change and the loss of the security blanket provided by a federal bureaucracy.

Congress and President Bush cannot allow ATC labor unions to hijack efforts to privatize ATC functions. The current, federally run system is still broken, the cost of its services is too high, and the level of its service is too low. Instead of creating obstacles to ATC privatization, Congress should set a direct course, due north, for privatization modeled after the Canadian experience.

— Paul J. Gessing is director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. He is also the author of the NTUF policy paper “Flying Blind: How Tax-Financed Air Traffic Control has Taken American Aviation Off Course.” Write to him at 108 N. Alfred St., Alexandria, Va., 22314.


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