Joshua L. Schank, an urban planner, is president and chief executive of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation, which seeks to improve transportation policy. From 2007 to 2011, he directed the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project.
The sequester-related budget cuts that led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to furlough air-traffic controllers, resulting in flight delays at virtually all major U.S. airports, has Congress and the administration pointing fingers at each other. But perhaps a more useful issue to address is why air-traffic controllers are FAA employees. There is no good reason for air traffic control and safety regulation to be under the same FAA umbrella, a setup that creates more problems than it solves.
The FAA is responsible for two basic functions: air safety regulation and air traffic control. (On Sunday, the agency began furloughing its air-traffic controllers for one day every two weeks, forcing the remaining controllers to slow the aviation system to avoid potential reductions in safety margins.) Although ensuring the safety of the flying public through regulation is a critical task that should remain under federal control, there is no inherent reason that air traffic control needs to be in the same agency or even the responsibility of the federal government.
There is, in fact, a conflict of interest in having air traffic control and its regulator under the same roof. Air traffic control is an operational function that should be performed independently, perhaps even privately, with appropriate safety oversight from the FAA.
Other countries have long used such a model. A private nonprofit corporation has been responsible for air traffic control in Canada since the Canadian government sold Nav Canada in 1996; it receives no public funding. Britain made the strategic decision to separate its air traffic control operations from regulation in 1992; full privatization followed in 2000.
A similar privatized system in this country could protect the nation’s air traffic control system from the vagaries of congressional budget battles. By consolidating air traffic control centers — which the FAA owns but, politically speaking, would not be able to consolidate — and speeding up implementation of the satellite-based NextGen system, a privatized system could also provide more efficiency without compromising safety.
The transition from radar- to satellite-based air traffic control would have numerous safety benefits, improve fuel savings and reduce congestion. The NextGen initiative began during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, and expansion is going extremely slowly — in part because of the FAA’s dual mission: The bureaucracy of the safety regulatory agency bogs down the implementation, which is being done by the same agency.
Privatization has had strong bipartisan backing for more than two decades. Already, some control towers at smaller airports use private-sector operators. The result has been lower costs without compromising safety. Unfortunately, these contract towers are still funded through the FAA and thus are subject to budget cuts from the sequester. Until a true separation of functions is achieved, partisan budget battles can affect travelers.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations made attempts at privatization, but they were held up by political concerns, including union opposition and that slow-moving bureaucracy. Given public frustration at the ongoing flight delays, the unions might prefer privatization to the current mess. On a broader level, the United States cannot afford to fall further behind in its transportation infrastructure. Just ask the overworked air-traffic controllers who are using outdated technology to oversee thousands of flights a day.
Critics of privatization say that safety would be compromised and that in some places, the number of safety incidents has increased since privatization. But there is disagreement about the validity of these claims. Numerous factors, such as an increase in air traffic, can play a role in safety incidents — and it is hard to imagine that simply being a federal employee makes a qualified air-traffic controller work better.
After years of success, it is clear that the privatized Canadian and British systems work. No international travelers think they should avoid British or Canadian airspace for safety reasons. Union leaders concerned about the specter of lost jobs might consider that jobs are getting hit with today’s budget cuts. Perhaps the sequester can have a positive impact on air travel if it gets us moving toward better organization of the FAA, air traffic control and air traffic safety regulation.
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