In the GOP debate on September 7, moderator Brian Williams asked candidate Ron Paul if the government has a role in “air-traffic control, controlling the jets above our heads.”
“I think in theory,” Paul replied, “if you understood the free market in a free society, you don’t need government to do that.”
Williams seemed taken aback; he evidently thought that without the federal government, there would be no air-traffic control at all: “All the pilots in the sky, to add to their responsibilities, their own air-traffic control, in an organic way?” And the comment brought Paul ridicule from the Left, including Talking Points Memo.
But just two weeks later, none other than Peter Orszag — formerly the director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Obama administration, and currently a Citigroup executive — endorsed a kind of privatized air-traffic control in a Bloomberg op-ed. This is not only a good idea; it’s a centrist one.
As Orszag notes, air-traffic control is in for some dramatic changes, whether the Federal Aviation Administration continues to manage it or not. Runway congestion is a serious problem, the technology needed to solve it already exists, and the project to implement it, called NextGen, is under way.
NextGen is a GPS-based system that will give pilots much more precise information about where other planes are. This will allow them to fly closer together — meaning that they can take off at shorter intervals and fly more direct routes. In addition, by giving pilots direct access to some of the information they now get from air-traffic controllers, it cuts a step out of the process, making flight safer. In a limited sense, one might even say that it gives “all the pilots in the sky” “their own air-traffic control, in an organic way.”
Everyone agrees that NextGen is a crucial step for air-traffic control; the question is how to get there. Each plane needs to be fitted with equipment to transmit and receive GPS coordinates, and air-traffic-control stations need new technology as well. As Orszag notes, under the current FAA plan, NextGen won’t be fully in place for almost a decade. Here’s how to do it faster, he writes: “Take responsibility for implementing the new GPS system, and for air-traffic control altogether, away from the FAA and assign it to a private, nonprofit organization.”
The U.S. would not be a pioneer if it adopted this approach; in fact, it lags behind many other developed countries. Nearly two dozen nations have assigned air-traffic-control duties to a distinct, independent entity rather than handling them within the government bureaucracy. Planes haven’t crashed into one another; in fact, safety records have been excellent.
How would a nonprofit organization implement expensive technology more quickly than the government can? As I argued in NR’s print edition more than three years ago, the organization should be headed by a board that includes representatives of all the stakeholders, from private pilots to major airlines, rather than government bureaucrats. “If the small guys [i.e., recreational pilots] won’t go along, you find a way to pay them off,” the Reason Foundation’s transportation expert, Robert Poole, told me. “You provide some kind of subsidy to help them get the equipment by a much quicker deadline. Those kinds of deals don’t seem to be possible in the current system.”
At the time, Poole predicted that with a setup that made sense, everything could be in place by 2012. Instead, as that year approaches, the FAA is still bumbling along on its path to NextGen.
Another key change that a private organization could make — or that could be imposed on the FAA, for that matter — is to fund operations in a more logical way. A better funding mechanism could not only raise enough money to implement NextGen quickly, it could address congestion in and of itself.
Right now, the FAA receives some money from Congress, which makes no sense: Air-traffic control is not a public utility, but rather a service provided to the individuals and businesses that transport things by air. The rest of the FAA’s money comes from a per-passenger tax, which makes no sense, either: At a given airport and a given time, a plane needs the same services from air-traffic control whether it’s empty or full, tiny or huge.
As Orszag writes, “A better approach would be for users to pay the whole bill, and for the fees to be imposed based on the number of takeoffs and landings. This would ensure that those who use the air-traffic-control system pay for it, and it would keep funding outside the political process.”
In addition to funding new technology, user fees based on takeoffs and landings would encourage airlines to use larger-capacity aircraft and make fewer flights — which would reduce congestion.
“We live in a society where we have been adapted to this, and you can’t just drop it all at once,” Ron Paul told Brian Williams during the debate. “But you can transition away from it.” When it comes to air-traffic control, a transition away from government control is exactly what’s needed.
— Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review.