AIR TRAVEL in the United States is blessedly, astonishingly safe. The airlines transport 2 million passengers per day, yet fatal accidents are exceedingly rare. From 2004 through 2013, only 133 people died on board scheduled commercial flights that crashed. This record is reason for celebration, but not complacency; it is in large part a tribute to the excellent work of the air-traffic controllers and regulators who work for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Yet there is a growing consensus that the FAA could do as well, or even better, at less cost in both dollars and political hassle. Its budget comes from a pastiche of taxes, user fees and appropriations that are subject to constant interest-group lobbying, partisan feuding and, more recently, the blunt force of sequestration. The FAA got caught up in a partial shutdown when one of its perennial short-term reauthorization bills lapsed in August 2011; in April 2013 the agency had to furlough 10 percent of air-traffic controllers due to sequestration-related funding disruptions. Meanwhile, delays and cost overruns plague its long-term technological upgrade, known as NextGen. Everyone involved in the aviation industry — from airlines to unions — wants more stability.
With an FAA reauthorization bill due in September, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the House transportation committee chairman, says the time is ripe for a structural overhaul. The centerpiece would be to spin air traffic control off to a new corporate entity outside of the FAA, leaving the agency to concentrate on its safety-regulation role. Other countries, such as Canada and Britain, have taken that approach, the main virtue of which would be to get politics out of the funding of air traffic control operations and the NextGen upgrade. The proposed corporation would instead levy charges on the system’s various users according to presumably more objective, business-like criteria.
At least that’s the theory — and it’s a good one. It’s also, alas, similar to the theories that gave us the U.S. Postal Service and Amtrak. To be sure, demand for air travel is much more substantial than for mail or train travel, and it’s likely to remain so; it’s accordingly plausible that aviation could generate enough revenue to support an independent air traffic control organization. That doesn’t mean, however, that the various interests involved — unionized controllers, private-jet owners, rural airports — won’t continue to argue about who should pay for what, and how much. As long as those conflicts can be settled within the board of the proposed new corporation, well and good. If a new structure leaves stakeholders free to take their grievances to Congress, however, there won’t be much point to it. FAA reform is a worthy and, possibly, attainable goal. Actually achieving better governance, though, will depend on getting the details right.
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