Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated the names of Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and the Eno Center for Transportation. This version has been updated.
IT WOULD be hard to write a blueprint for federal discretionary spending and not have it include a single worthy idea. Case in point: President Trump’s “skinny budget” includes a lot of penny-wise, pound-foolish budget-cutting ideas — and a smart expression of support for modernizing the nation’s outmoded system of air-traffic control.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) runs civilian air-traffic control in the United States, and, by all accounts, the system is safe. There has not been a single fatal accident involving a scheduled airline flight in the United States since 2009. It could be much better, however, and more efficient. The problem has been the FAA’s inability to push through a $35.8 billion program, NextGen, whose goal is to move the agency, belatedly, into the age of digital communications and GPS. The difficulties with NextGen, in turn, reflect the FAA’s reliance on multiple streams of funding, including not only dedicated user fees and taxes but also, in recent years, congressional appropriations. And an agency subject even partly to budgetary politics is an agency at risk of instability, up to and including government shutdowns.
As most of the airline industry and even the air-traffic controllers’ union now realizes, this vital function is too important to be left to such political and bureaucratic vagaries. It should be transferred to a separate entity, perhaps a government-chartered corporation, with a separate board of directors and the autonomy to deal with technological issues more nimbly, according to the needs of the vast majority of the flying public — not congressional committees and the various interest groups that exercise disproportionate influence there. The FAA would remain as the safety regulator, a service it performs well and could perform even better if that were the agency’s sole focus.
Similar spinoffs have taken place in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, generally with good results. A new report by the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank whose board includes three former secretaries of transportation, proposed creating a government corporation or a nonprofit independent entity funded by direct payments from the system’s users. That notion tracks with legislation introduced last year by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House committee that oversees the FAA, and with Mr. Trump’s budget.
Key senators are opposed, however, which is why Mr. Shuster’s version went nowhere during the last FAA reauthorization process. In part, their objections reflect the usual political turf protection; but there are legitimate issues as well, such as the need for a sufficiently lengthy transition period to a new system, and the difficulties — financial and legal — of transferring the FAA’s assets to a new entity. As the experience of other countries shows, however, none of those obstacles is insurmountable. With the latest in a series of short-term FAA reauthorization bills set to expire in September, the time is now for Congress to start good-faith discussions about how to overcome them.
Air-traffic modernization is overdue. And with the White House on board, there may finally be a real chance to make it happen.