Air travelers expect air traffic control to work, and that it be out of sight and mind. Unfortunately, ongoing government failure to modernize the Federal Aviation Administration's ancient air traffic control system is becoming just all too visible for the traveling public. It has taken the form of increased flight delays and cancellations.
Numerous government audits suggest efforts by Congress and the FAA to bring 1960s-era ground-based radar air traffic control system into the satellite age may be doomed to failure.
There's no denying we already have a firm grasp on what doesn't work. In 2014 and 2015, a critical new flight routing system called ERAM suffered meltdowns in Los Angeles and Washington, leaving thousands of travelers stranded. This system had been delivered five years late and several hundred million dollars over budget. If this was just a fluke, it might be excused. But the ERAM rollout debacle is symptomatic of broader problems.
A systematic study of the government's NextGen air traffic control modernization program was conducted by the National Research Council and released in 2015. "The original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today," "not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future," and "‘NextGen' has become a misnomer," are just three of the report's scathing conclusions. The Government Accountability Office and Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General have generated reams of NextGen audits that reach similar conclusions.
To be sure, the FAA itself deserves blame for poor procurement practices, an overly cautious culture, and an inability to attract and retain top technical talent. One-third of our nation's certified air traffic controllers are eligible for retirement. But most of the aforementioned problems and others are due in part to congressional mismanagement.
Congress has failed to provide the stable, predictable funding necessary for high-quality air traffic control. This has thrown a wrench into modernization efforts, delaying technical upgrades, threatening small and rural airport access, furloughing air traffic controllers, and limiting enrollment at the FAA training academy.
Fortunately, we know what does work in the rest of the world, and we now have a golden opportunity to make those major upgrades and reforms here.
Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has introduced reforms in the 21st Century Aviation, Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act. Under this proposal, the U.S. would join dozens of other countries in separating air traffic control from the national aviation safety regulator into a self-supporting, independent entity. Specifically, the reforms are modeled on Nav Canada, a nonprofit user co-op established more than 20 years ago to replace government-run air traffic control. The bill would eliminate the FAA's current conflict of interest in serving as operator and regulator, and let the FAA focus exclusively on safety oversight.
Nav Canada is a proven success. Later this year, Nav Canada's inflation-adjusted, cost-based user fees will drop to 45 percent below the aviation taxes they replaced two decades ago. Nav Canada's cost per flight hour is currently more than 25 percent lower than the FAA's. And all this while our northern neighbors adopted 21st-century technologies and attracted and retained top talent. Nav Canada has been so successful that they now market their various technologies to the rest of the world. They are a lead partner and will next year be the first customer of a new global satellite-based air traffic surveillance system, a partnership first offered to the FAA that it was forced to turn down due to ongoing mismanagement and funding uncertainty.
The government-run status quo is unsustainable, making reform seem like a no-brainer. In agreement with much of the aviation sector and most independent analysts, the FAA controllers' union has strongly endorsed new reform legislation that would take its members out of the federal government — a rare plea from a government employee union. More importantly, consumers will reap major benefits from modernization. With a satellite-based system, routes can be straightened and efficiency improved, leading to shorter flight times, reduced fuel consumption and airfares, and fewer delays and cancellations.
We know what works and what doesn't work. Shuster's reform proposal adopts the international best practices that work. If Congress fails to reform air traffic control, we will know whom to blame the next time a system meltdown delays our business trips, vacations, and visits to loved ones.
Marc Scribner is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.
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