April 6, 2013

So the Federal Aviation Administration will not be shutting down 149 air traffic control towers on Sunday after all. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the sequestration-related cutback, designed to save $33 million in the current fiscal year, would be delayed until June 15. The stated goal of the postponement is to give affected communities more time to come up with their own funds to operate the towers, but the FAA also faced a lawsuit from the companies that operate the towers under contracts with the government — as well as an outcry over safety.

Risk assessments are inherently imprecise, and it’s always better to err on the side of caution. But the proposed cuts probably do not pose a threat to air safety. The control towers in question are at small airports, none of which handles more than about 270 take-offs and landings per day and roughly 40 percent of which handle fewer than 140. Much of that traffic consists of small planes. With modern technology, pilots can handle these operations safely whether there’s someone in the tower or not.

Air travel generally is far safer than it was 30 years ago. But today’s lower accident rates are not reflected in the cost-benefit formulas by which the FAA justifies federal funding for the relevant control towers. Fresh information might argue for defunding them even without sequestration.

The real issue is that the federal government lacks an objective method of allocating its air-traffic control resources. The 149 towers facing closure are all operated by contractors, a form of privatization that began under the Reagan administration but expanded when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, was in the White House. Transportation Department inspector general reports have declared contractor towers to be as safe as, and more cost-effective than, towers run by FAA and its personnel.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that all of these privately run towers are necessary. To the contrary: Their lower costs gave Congress a handy excuse to preserve towers, or build new ones, according to the demands of pork-barrel politics. Meanwhile, 250 or so towers remain under direct FAA operation, including some that handle far less traffic than those run by private contractors. Their unionized employees are more numerous and highly paid than those of the contractors.

Under pressure from sequestration, the Transportation Department cut only non-union privatized towers, perhaps because the law allows it to cancel those contracts on short notice, whereas dealing with the air traffic controllers’ union would take more time. Or so it seemed until the contractors filed their lawsuit.

The whole mess illustrates, for seemingly the millionth time, that mandatory, across-the-board cuts are no way to manage the federal budget. Ideally, what Congress and the administration would do is survey the nation’s air-traffic-control needs, based on the latest data, and then decide on the most cost-effective mix of private and government-run services to meet them. Of course, if the federal government worked that way, there never would have been a sequester in the first place.