Air Traffic Control

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You often need a crisis, real or imagined, to get major policy changes enacted. There are two looming challenges in our backwards and bureaucratic air traffic control system that might nudge Congress toward reform. The first is that the government system is having a hard time keeping up with the continued growth in air travel.

The second, as Government Executive magazine reports today, is that a large group of controllers are nearing retirement and the government might have a hard time finding replacements.

These challenges add to the woes of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has mismanaged the air traffic control (ATC) system for decades. The FAA has struggled to modernize ATC technology in order to improve safety and expand capacity. Its upgrade projects are often behind schedule and far over budget, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Discussed in here). 

Privatization of U.S. air traffic control is long overdue. During the past 15 years, more than a dozen countries have partly or fully privatized their ATC, and provide some good models for U.S. reforms.

Canada privatized its ATC in 1996, setting up a fully private, non-profit corporation, Nav Canada, which is self-supporting from charges on aviation users. The Canadian system has received rave reviews for investing in new technologies and reducing air congestion, and it has one of the best safety records in the world.

The United States should be a leader in air traffic control, especially given the nation’s legacy of aviation innovation. A privatized system would allow for more flexible hiring policies, replacement of expensive human controllers with machines, and access to private capital for infrastructure upgrading. It is also likely that privatization would help improve safety and reduce air congestion by speeding the adoption of advanced technologies.