Column: Take back air traffic control

Dorothy Robyn

The dysfunction of our legislative process is on full display with this year’s bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. A small but well-heeled lobby — corporate jet owners — is blocking a House vote on a proposal that would bring huge benefits to the flying public. It’s an ugly movie and we’ve seen it before.

The House Transportation Committee approved legislation that would move the FAA’s air traffic control system to a self-supporting nonprofit corporation, leaving the FAA as an independent safety regulator. The Trump Administration strongly backs the proposal, which has a long and bipartisan lineage: more than 20 years ago, the Clinton Administration tried to transfer air traffic control to a quasi-private U.S. Air Traffic Services Corporation (USATS).

The rationale is straightforward. Air traffic control is not an inherently governmental function. Keeping planes safely separated is a complex but purely operational process that follows well-established rules. Like running an airline or manufacturing a Boeing 787, air traffic control can be performed by a private entity as long as it is overseen by government safety regulators.

Precisely because air traffic control is operational in nature, the government is ill-suited to running it. Experts agree on the problem. Air traffic control is a 24/7, technology-intensive service business trapped in a regulatory agency that is constrained by federal personnel and procurement rules, burdened by a flawed funding mechanism, and micromanaged by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

This mismatch is most evident in the FAA’s long-running struggle to deploy new technology that would make air travel safer and more efficient. Controllers rely on 1950s radars whose limited precision necessitates wide safety buffers between aircraft, and pilots zigzag between terrestrial navigation aids because they can’t access the satellite-based GPS technology available on our smartphones. Antiquated equipment contributes to flight delays — including longer trip times based on airlines’ anticipation of delays — and helps to explain why the FAA’s cost to handle a flight has increased by two-thirds since 1996. While defenders point to the FAA’s Next Generation modernization program (NextGen), in a 2015 report whose subtitle could have been “the emperor has no clothes,” the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “NextGen has become a misnomer.”

The rest of the world got the memo. Whereas in 1995, only four countries had spun off air traffic control, now more than 60 have done so. Canada’s non-governmental air traffic control provider, the model for the House bill, is handling 50 percent more traffic with 30 percent fewer people than in 1996, and it beats the FAA on unit costs despite its smaller scale. Scott McCartney, who writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat” column, observed that flying north to south over the U.S.-Canadian border “is like time travel for pilots (as) you leave a modern air-traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up.”

The 1995 legislation to create USATS was dead on arrival in Congress primarily because of the pushback from private pilots and corporate jet owners, who pay almost nothing to use the air traffic control system. Even though the USATS bill held both groups harmless, allowing them to continue to pay a low fuel tax, neither group trusted the federal government to keep its word. That distrust was sown largely by trade associations seeking to justify their existence.

The same dynamic is playing out now. In addition to protecting private pilots, the House bill would preserve the now-larger subsidy to corporate jets, which represents a transfer of as much as $1 billion a year from the crowded passengers in coach to the Point One Percenters flying on their $65 million Gulfstreams. Skeptical that such largesse will continue under the new order, the self-serving jet-set trade association, flying under the cover of the much larger private pilot lobby, is plying Congress with campaign contributions to keep air traffic control in the last century.

Joseph Stiglitz, who helped craft the USATS proposal as chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, analyzed the federal government’s inability to make a credible commitment to general aviation in a 1998 lecture on “the private uses of public interests.” Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, made a broader point in his critique: While few public policy ideas make everyone better off, there are many “near-Pareto improvements” that would benefit all but a narrowly defined special interest group. However, in government policy-making, benefiting “‘almost everyone’ is rarely sufficient,” Stiglitz observed, and so improvements such as USATS often do not occur.

The “almost everyone” who would benefit from the House bill includes airlines, air traffic controllers and commercial pilots. Most important, the flying public. We will soon learn whether a small group of high fliers can ground progress for the rest of us.

Dorothy Robyn was special assistant to the president for economic policy at the White House National Economic Council from 1993 to 2001.