Editorial: Independent Air Traffic Control is Good Public Policy

March 23, 2017

President Trump’s first budget proposal is notable for the massive cuts in scientific research, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and completely eliminate 19 federal agencies.

And while many are already calling the Administration’s proposal “dead in the water” one item should not be dismissed: spinning off the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system to an independent, nonprofit entity. Doing so would remove roughly $11 to $12 billion per year from the federal budget, and over 35,000 federal employees could be off the federal payroll.

First, a clarification. Many of the news pieces that have come out about this subject talk about the “privatization” of ATC. Technically that is true – air traffic control would indeed be turned over to a private entity. But no one—not even the White House—is proposing to turn ATC to a for-profit company. It would be a nonprofit entity, much like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, or the U.S. Olympic Committee. A range of stakeholders, from airlines to air traffic controllers, private pilots, and the federal government would be deeply involved in running the system.

Make no mistake: this would be a transformative departure from the way the United States has directed air traffic for the past eight decades and the most significant government reform in a generation. Unlike almost every other industrialized nation, our federal government directly operates ATC and funds it through a portion of our paychecks as well as the taxes we all pay each time we fly. This is inefficient and expensive and needs to change.

In the last four decades, a plethora of reports have called for fundamental reform on how ATC is provided in the United States. Doing so would allow the government’s long-stalled modernization program (the NextGen initiative) to really take off and start to deliver benefits. A modernized ATC system will allow planes to fly more efficiently, directly, and, safely. In turn, it would increase capacity, reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and save fuel.

Unfortunately, these critical investments in NextGen are not getting done quickly and efficiently because federal bureaucracies cannot easily deploy multi-billion dollar investments like this. Why not? Because ATC today relies on annual budget appropriations which are subject to budget sequestration and spending caps, hiring freezes, and government shutdowns. Necessary, but sometimes cumbersome, federal procurement rules also hinder the government’s efforts to modernize the system. Recognizing this, countries like Canada moved ATC out of their governments and now have better technologies while keeping costs in check.

So despite the frame of the budget request around deconstructing the federal government, it would be a mistake to consider Trump’s ATC reform request as indiscriminate bureaucracy slashing. After all, proposals to remove ATC from the direct control of the federal government were championed by President Bill Clinton. What’s more, the Obama Administration highlighted NextGen as one of the few major infrastructure projects that would provide nationally-significant returns to American taxpayers. They estimated it would provide $87 million in net economic benefit.

In other words, the goal of ATC reform is not to downsize government. It is to create a safer and more efficient system with the potential to continue the growth of America’s aviation industry. That’s why spinning-off ATC into a nonprofit entity is supported by pretty much everyone in the industry, from air traffic controllers unions, to the airlines, to the former government officials (nominated by Democrats and Republicans) that used to run ATC.

This concept of an independent ATC provider has been proven successfully in other countries. It saves taxpayers money and makes a crucial component of our economy become more efficient. This is a topic that should be in the spotlight of every politician, on all sides of the isle, as a matter of good public policy. Let’s not wait to fix this critical piece of American infrastructure.

Robert Puentes is the President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation. Rui Neiva is an Eno Policy Analyst and author of the book Institutional Reform of Air Navigation Service Providers: A Historical and Economic Perspective.




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