Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Privatized Air Traffic Control: Ready for Take-Off

The sky is the limit, or so goes the saying. What has seemingly reached its limit is putting up with the government's control of air traffic control. Representative John Mica (R-FL) recently introduced legislation that would lead to greater privatization of air traffic control. In response, the Center of American Progress, which is the Left's equivalent of the Heritage Foundation, wrote a piece entitled "4 Essential Questions About Air Traffic Control Privatization." The four questions were as follows:
  1. If the current system works well, why change it?
  2. Who is going to pay for it?
  3. What about NextGen (which is a satellite-based system of navigation) implementation?
  4. How would privatization affect aviation policy?
The author of the piece assumes that a) the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working well, and b) that air traffic control is so important or complex that only government can handle it. Addressing the second point first, we already live in a world in which multiple countries, many of them developed (e.g., Canada, Germany, United Kingdom), already have successfully either a public-private partnership or privatized air traffic control. Even though basic comparative politics teaches us that each country has a unique political system, it's a safe bet that there are enough countries as case studies from which we can learn how to apply learned lessons to an American privatization model. Case in point: a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in which a majority of major aviation industry stakeholders said that privatization was indeed implementable.

Let's return to the first assumption about the FAA working well. Contrary to what some believe, the FAA's monopoly on air traffic control doesn't function well (Poole, 2013). The GAO keeps lambasting the FAA for its incapability to implement NextGen, as well as a certain ineptness for protecting airplanes from cyber attacks. NextGen is something that the FAA has been trying to implement for years now, and not only are they behind schedule, but the FAA is also over-budget. The FAA also rations flights by delay on a first-come, first-serve basis, which creates all sorts of overcrowding. The Department of Transportation found that privately-run contract towers are significantly cheaper to run that those of the FAA.

Even better, the FAA can't even secure adequate funding. Not only is FAA funding marred by political considerations, but the 7.5 percent airline excise tax becomes more inefficient as airline ticket prices drop over time. Instead of using user-tax funding that is a) subject to annual Congressional approval and b) not connected to subsequent appropriations, we can shift over to direct user charges, charges that flow directly to the provider (Poole, 2013, p. 42) and allows for issuing revenue bonds based on their revenue stream. There were those who were worried that Canadian airline tickets would increase as a result of such privatization, but that didn't end up happening. Instead, Canadian air traffic control considerably improved

Air traffic control is more complex than it has been in the past. We don't need an inflexible, slow-moving bureaucratic agency managing something as important as air traffic control. We don't need air traffic control technology that operates on a computer system from the 1990s and radar technology from the mid-twentieth century. Many countries have privatized their air traffic control with better implementation of technological development and a decrease in congestion-related delays as a result. How about the United States joins the modern world by privatizing its air traffic control?

Originally published at The Citizen Scholars.

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