OVER THE NEXT decade the Federal Aviation Administration is going to have to reorganize itself drastically to handle the changing pattern of the airline industry. It's going to have to install much new and highly advanced equipment. The secretary of transportation, James Burnley, suggests that it will be able to do those things better if it is not a federal agency -- or at least not the conventional sort of agency. Air-safety regulation will remain a federal function, he says, but the operation of the traffic control network might be run more effectively outside the government.
Congress hasn't time to take up the issue this year, but Mr. Burnley wants people to start thinking about it. He cites three chief complaints. Federal procurement procedures are so involuted that new computers and radars may be obsolescent by the time the FAA installs them. Worse, civil service rules make it very difficult to deploy staff efficiently. Excessive overwork and overtime among controllers are concentrated in a few big (and expensive) cities because, he says, civil service rules prohibit cost-of-living differentials. With uniform pay scales, it's hard to get people to work in New York. And finally, Mr. Burnley observes that the annual budget convulsion, resulting in appropriations months late and all rolled into one gigantic bill, is badly suited to an operation as intricate and technical as the FAA.
Mr. Burnley proposes two alternative remedies. The FAA could be turned into a nonprofit corporation run by the airlines. Or the government could contract the work out to private firms.
The first idea is a no-go. The operation of the air traffic control system is not quite so easily separable from safety considerations as Mr. Burnley suggests, and in the present state of American anxieties on the subject few people are likely to support private ownership. Putting the traffic control system, or some elements of it, under contract is a more plausible possibility.
But Mr. Burnley is talking about inefficiencies and rigidities that characterize federal administration in general. He is illustrating a need to improve procurement procedures and employee compensation rules not just for the FAA but for all federal agencies. No doubt Mr. Burnley would reply that reforming the whole government is unlikely to a degree that makes it hardly worth discussing. But it's difficult to think that the federal government, which operates other agencies using high technology, can't find a way to run the FAA rationally and efficiently.