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[Jeffrey Frankel] How to fix America’s broken air-traffic control system

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 19, 2023 - 05:30

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With air travel finally returning to pre-pandemic levels, this holiday season is expected to be exceptionally hectic. Many passengers, especially in the United States, will face maddening flight delays, and many more will suffer unnecessarily long flying times. But, most worrying of all, at least a few might witness or be involved in frightening airport near-misses.

To be sure, the US has an outstanding record of aviation safety, with no fatal commercial airplane crashes since 2009. But the frequency of close calls between planes in US airports has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic: approximately 300 near-collisions were reported over the past year.

This alarming surge in close calls can be partly attributed to a critical shortage of qualified air-traffic controllers, which has put severe pressure on America’s air-traffic control (ATC) system. According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, there are 1,000 fewer controllers working today than ten years ago, despite the increase in air travel. The US is currently facing a shortfall of roughly 3,000 air-traffic controllers, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has acknowledged.

Consequently, air-traffic controllers frequently find themselves working overtime, with six-day workweeks the norm. The ATC’s antiquated equipment compounds the problem of widespread exhaustion. Despite big advances in computing and satellite-based telecommunications, controllers continue to rely on ground-based radar and analog radio-communication systems that date back to the 1950s. Shockingly, some controllers still use paper strips to keep track of airplanes. The results include necessarily high costs and an impaired flying experience.

Moreover, the ATC system -- managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is also the agency responsible for air-safety regulation -- suffers from the lack of stable, multiyear funding. This hinders ATC planning and impedes necessary investments in up-to-date equipment and the recruitment and training of controllers. The FAA is barely training enough new controllers to replace those reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 or opting for early retirement. At this pace, the agency cannot address the current staffing shortfall, let alone keep up with the long-term growth in air travel.

Given that it takes three years to train new air-traffic controllers, the FAA needs urgently to boost trainee numbers to achieve normal staffing levels within an acceptable timeframe. But the uncertainty surrounding the agency’s budget poses a major challenge. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly threatened to cut appropriations as part of their efforts to reduce the US fiscal deficit by slashing non-defense discretionary spending. The 2018-19 government shutdown, for example, closed the FAA training academy in Oklahoma City, impeding employment of new controllers. A potential shutdown in February could prolong the current shortage well into the 2030s.

But the problem goes beyond funding. Another cause of airport congestion, flight delays, cancellations, and near-misses is the disproportionate allocation of limited ATC resources to corporate jets, at the expense of larger commercial planes.

A solution to America’s aviation crisis, supported by various experts, would be to adopt Canada’s successful approach: transfer the ATC system from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation and fund it through user fees. This is the “public utility” model. Having users, rather than Congress, fund the organization would allow it to hire a new generation of controllers and invest in advanced technologies.

While entrusting such a crucial function to a private corporation might appear risky to some, such concerns would be misguided. The FAA would still oversee and maintain the safety of the ATC system, just as it currently regulates for-profit airplane manufacturers and airlines. In fact, the current arrangement, in which the FAA both operates and regulates ATC, represents a conflict of interest -- one that the International Civil Aviation Organization directs countries to avoid. Many developed countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, have partly or completely privatized their ATC systems, with significant positive results.

Similar proposals to privatize the ATC system have been endorsed by independent experts over the years. They range from libertarians at the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute, to Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz and Dorothy Robyn, who worked on former President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful efforts to corporatize the ATC system in the 1990s. Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who served under President Donald Trump, has also made the case for such ATC reform.

Why, then, were these proposals not implemented? One answer is the political power wielded by corporate jet owners. This small but highly influential group has its own successful lobbying operation focused on retaining cheap access to airports.

The financial challenges facing the ATC system would be a bit less severe if the owners of corporate jets paid their fair share of fees. As it stands, the system heavily subsidizes small private jets at the expense of harried commercial passengers, who are forced to pay substantial taxes and fees. Despite representing about one-sixth of the flights managed by the FAA, the rapidly growing fleet of private jets contributes only 2 percent of the tax revenue on which the agency relies. The effective subsidy has been estimated at $1 billion a year.

The ATC system must have incentives to prioritize commercial airlines, which are more attuned to passengers’ needs, over the interests of the private-jet lobby. Privatizing the ATC system would make it accountable to the public, not to lobbyists with their campaign contributions, and compel private-jet owners to pay their fair share. This would result in fewer takeoffs and landings, thereby reducing airport congestion and air-traffic controllers’ workload.

Although policymakers and scholars are well aware of the role that small yet powerful interest groups in Washington play, travelers do not always understand how these influences contribute to long flying times, frequent flight delays, cancellations, and near-collisions. If voters understood the causal link, perhaps Congress would be motivated to act.

Jeffrey Frankel

Jeffrey Frankel, professor of capital formation and growth at Harvard University, served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)