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ICYMI: Another Opportunity for Air Traffic Control Reform

Washington, DC, February 28, 2017 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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Yesterday, Forbes contributor Dan Reed wrote a column on the current state of America’s air traffic control system and the FAA’s languishing NextGen modernization plan.  Reed addresses some of the myths surrounding FAA reform, and underscores how reform will benefit our aviation system and the flying public.  The column can be found here and read in its entirety below. 

Forbes Magazine
Dan Reed, Contributor
February 27, 2017

It costs a jaw-dropping 26% more to monitor and control an airliner’s movement at U.S. airports and its flight through U.S. skies than it does to monitor and control the same aircraft’s corresponding movement in Canada.

Yes, Canada overall has a lower cost of living than the U.S., but only by a margin of about 12%. So why is it then that the gap in air traffic control costs between North America’s two most advanced economies is so disproportionately out of whack - especially given the economies of scale that one would assume should make air traffic control (ATC) operations in the much, much larger U.S. air traffic environment far more efficient?

Robert Poole believes he knows; government control.

Poole is a MIT-trained engineer with a long history in transportation technology and management who co-founded the libertarian Reason Foundation to advance libertarian/conservative idea on a wide variety of public policy fronts. He stepped down as the foundation’s CEO in 2001, but Poole has continued as the director of the think tank’s transportation policy sector since Reason’s founding in 1978.

It’s a position from which he has had significant influence on everything from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization industrial companies once owned by Her Majesty’s Government (including British Airways), to rail and trucking deregulation in this country. Indeed, it was Poole who coined the term “privatization” to refer to the trend of governments (national, state and local) contracting out various ancillary services to private companies. It’s a money-saving, efficiency-gaining tactic that now is common but only 30 years ago was a radical concept.

But no subject has been more closely identified with Poole than that of air traffic control privatization.

For at least four decades he has been a gentle but relentless campaigner for the privatization of this and other nations’ air traffic control systems.  In the U.S., specifically, he long has argued that our air traffic control system is too costly, perpetually antiquated and, as currently structured, institutionally incapable of ever catching up with what most other advanced nations are doing.

But that need not always be the case.

Poole argues passionately that releasing the nation’s Air Traffic Control Organization, now a division of the Federal Aviation Administration and a unit of the sprawling U.S. Department of Transportation, from government ownership and control will trigger lots of really good results for both airlines and travel consumers, and more importantly, for the nation’s economy. Those benefits theoretically would include:

  • Dramatically reducing the time and cost of developing and fielding state-of-the-art ATC technology by removing the current bureaucratic impediments that make it impossible for today’s Air Traffic Control Organization to acquire, adapt and activate inexpensive and fully capable off-the-shelf hardware and software in a short time frame
  • Reducing ATC system operating costs by implementing new technologies and techniques that will allow aircraft of all types to move more freely through the nation’s aviation system with fewer voice interactions with air traffic controllers
  • Cutting airline fuel consumption and other operating costs and shortening flight times through the use of new ATC technology that could make routine the concept of “free flight” - aircraft flying  the shortest, most efficient and/or preferred routes between two cities  rather than being required to follow very specific, indirect routing laid out decades ago based on the location of ground radar stations
  • Reducing the frequency and length of flight delays, at least marginally, by the use of better ATC technology that will both allow free flight and reduce congestion in the air and on the ground at airports and make possible more precise airline flight scheduling
  • Increase the nation’s total air travel capacity through more precise monitoring and control of its finite amount of air space and time
  • Improving, or at least maintaining today’s already excellent level of aviation safety
  • Resolving the current – and seemingly perpetual – problem with air traffic controller under-staffing by freeing today’s ATC Organization from often crippling and sometimes nonsensical or even counter-productive government hiring rules and bureaucratic lethargy, and by reducing, over time, the number of controllers required to fully staff a new, technologically advanced system.

    If the privatized air traffic control system for which Poole has been an indefatigable proponent actually can achieve all those things one would think that it would be a good thing for us all. Yet not everyone is convinced that a privatized air traffic control organization can achieve all those great things, or at least that such achievements are worth disrupting the aviation world as we know it today.

    You can start by counting a majority in Congress among the unconvinced.

    Our federal lawmakers repeatedly have chosen over the last two decades NOT to pass – or even to a vote on – proposed laws that would have spun off the nation’s Air Traffic Control system from the FAA, either into a federally-chartered corporation or a private not-for-profit organization  even though all such proposals would have continued strong oversight roles for the government.

    Delta Airlines, alone among the nation’s big airlines, also opposes ATC privatization.

    So does the National Business Aircraft Association. That’s the Washington lobby representing owners of private aircraft used by companies and wealthy business people, and most of the airplane manufacturers who make those planes.

    Their reasons, and those of other ATC privatization opponents, differ in some respects. But they all center on fears that a privatized ATC system will mean a loss of their ability to influence or control the ATC system’s policies, spending priorities and major decisions on matters like where major facilities be located. For some, there’s also concern that they or their constituents will end up shouldering a bigger share of the costs of operating a privatized ATC system than is the case today.

    Still, Poole’s analysis is compelling.

    In the February installment of the Reason Foundation’s ATC Reform News digital news latter, he relates an anecdote from an FAA insider about a FAA procurement system known as AMS. AMS was mandated by Congress in the late 1990s in order to give the agency greater flexibility in acquiring products and services more quickly. Perversely, the FAA’s bureaucracy responded to that mandate by building a whole new set of procurement rules from scratch with the result being an even slower, more cumbersome and more costly procurement system than the one Congress sought to bypass.

    “Rather than being able to field its inventory more efficiently and at lower cost, AMS became a bureaucratic quagmire,” Poole wrote, quoting his unnamed FAA insider source. “To award a contract, FAA has codified many lengthy steps—each involving complex procedures and large numbers of federal and vendor employees who must develop customized materials for each step in the process.”

    More damningly, Poole goes on to share the insider’s analysis that:

    “It is no accident that every modernization program is 'developmental,' and that workable, less-expensive, and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions do not fit the AMS model. Virtually all (ATC) equipment is now available in the marketplace and could be purchased accordingly. (But) FAA has never accepted a (commercial, off-the-shelf) solution, perhaps due to the fact that they would need to reduce the number of acquisition employees.  Accordingly, FAA churns out detailed contract specifications that in some cases have thousands of requirements, the majority of which have little to do with evaluating the equipment or services in the tender. Companies spend years and millions of dollars trying to meet these specifications and conducting the endless testing associated with them to successfully deliver a system."

    If that seems to you like a fairly strong condemnation of the pointless, inefficient, self-serving and coagulant effects of the FAA bureaucracy to you, join the crowd.  That it comes from the mouth of a frustrated insider within that bureaucracy is more than noteworthy.

    So what’s Congress going to do about it? Indeed, will they do anything about it all, given their long-standing avoidance of any reparative action on the issue?

    We’ll find out soon enough.

    When legislators return to work today from a week spent supposedly listening to constituents back in their home districts they will be focused on really big issues like the potential repeal and replacement of Obamacare, tax reform, and immigration policy (not to mention whatever media-driven political issues crop up).

    But ATC reform of some sort – including potential privatization - likely will be one of several matters just one rung down in importance (though several rungs down in terms of public awareness and political passion). Accordingly, proponents and opponents of ATC privatization already are gearing up for the fight.

    Just last week a group called Alliance for Aviation Across America, with NBAA president Ed Bolen serving as its chairman, released the results of a survey done in conjunction with the League of Rural Voters and Air Care Alliance, both which oppose FAA privatization for parochial reasons. Not surprisingly, the survey paid for by anti-FAA privatization organizations purports to show that 62% of Americans oppose FAA privatization.

    The survey’s results are hard to take seriously, for several reasons.

    First, it’s hard these days to get 62% of Americans to agree on the time of day. So the number, on its face, is suspect.

    Second, there exists very broad support, demonstrated frequently at the ballot box, for privatizing various local, state and federal services in this country over the last few decades. Americans have made it clear over and over and over that they like the idea of contracting out services once provided by the government with great inefficiency and high costs. The public generally view such outsourcing as an effective way of putting a lid on government spending.

    Third, and most obviously, the vast majority of Americans know little or nothing about what FAA privatization would or would not mean. So their response to a survey, especially one using a controversial technique designed to produce a pre-determined result, is of very little value.

    The survey is a prime example of the despicable but common “push poll” technique. The “push” statement read to those interviewed for the survey was:

    “There is currently a proposal in Congress to privatize the operations of the national air traffic control system by taking it from the FAA and turning it over to a non-profit corporation that would be responsible for all aspects of air traffic control, including management of the air traffic control system, funding, and regulation. Do you support or oppose privatizing the national air traffic control system?"

    It is a misleading and loaded statement in that “taking” the ATC Organization from the FAA implies some type of negative and forceful action will be taken to disrupt a smooth operation, which the FAA-led ATC Organization most certainly is not. More disturbing, the statement is untruthful in that it says the role of regulating the nation’s air traffic control system would be removed from the FAA and turned over to the private entity.

    That just ain’t so. The FAA’s regulatory authority over aviation operations and safety would continue unchanged. It would continue set enforce air traffic control performance and operational standards. And its representatives would sit on the privatized ATC Organization’s board precisely to ensure that safety standards are maintained and improved whenever possible.

    But it’s easy to see why a good-sized majority of those not keenly aware of aviation safety management, operations and regulatory issues said they would be opposed to such a change after being provided such purposely misleading information.

    Nevertheless, sometime this Spring, amidst all the other political and Congressional news, expect to hear occasional mention of Air Traffic Control privatization. And understand that putting control of the nation’s airways into the hands of a government-created private organization does not equal a reduction in safety, and likely would mean, over time, reduced operating costs and better service for all U.S. air travelers.

    But also recognize that ATC privatization is not a cure-all for what ails American air transport. ATC privatization likely will help airlines trim a couple of minutes off their average flight delays. But ATC today is not a major contributor to the airlines’ shameful  record when it comes to delivering passengers – and their bags – to their destinations on time (and doing so without all of the schedule padding  airlines use today, and without the 14-minute grace period allowed by the Department of Transportation for public reporting purposes).

    Still, fixing this nation’s badly broken air traffic control system’s organizational structure is an important and necessary first step to ultimately getting American commercial aviation back on time for the first time in at least four decades. Fixing that will make it harder – impossible really – for the airlines to continue blaming the air traffic control system for their own egregious failures to operate on time.

     

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    Tags: Aviation