In The News
The government should get out of the air traffic control business
ADOPTING PROGRESSIVE practices from Europe and Canada is all the rage, from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign to Michael Moore’s new documentary, “Where to Invade Next,” in which Mr. Moore marvels at Europe’s generous social programs. And we agree: The United States can and should learn from the experience of other Western democracies, whether that implies a bigger government or, as is sometimes the case abroad, a smaller one.
Take the prosaic but crucial function of air traffic control. In the United States, that is still a job for big government: specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration. Overseas, however, countries are turning away from this statist model. Canada spun off its system, Nav Canada, in 1996, to a private entity funded by user fees. Britain privatized in 2000. Australia and New Zealand are also part of the movement; ditto Germany and Switzerland, lest anyone think it’s English-speaking nations only.
In all of these countries, safety and innovation have stayed the same or improved, which is not surprising, as the new model separates regulation from operation. The U.S. approach, by contrast, keeps those conflicting roles within the same authority. Also, the FAA remains subject to the vagaries of congressional politics, with all the micromanaging and stopgap funding that implies. As a result, a $40 billion FAA modernization program is woefullybehind schedule.
Now comes House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)with a bill to adapt successful European and Canadian models to the United States. On Thursday, the committee moved his proposal ahead with the hope of passing legislation by March 31, when the current FAA authorization statute expires. A new corporation, funded by charges on the system’s various users, would manage flights and implement the long-stalled modernization. The FAA would still ensure safety, a regulatory job it already does remarkably well and might do even better if it were free to focus on that exclusively. Major players in the industry would share governance of the new entity, working out their differences within its boardroom rather than through the costlier and more conflictual method of lobbying Congress, as they do now.
These groups support Mr. Shuster’s plan, including not only commercial airlines but also the air-traffic controllers union, which had objected to similar plans in the past. This is by no means a panacea: Once upon a time, Congress turned over passenger rail and mail delivery to corporations known as Amtrak and the Postal Service. Much will depend on ensuring the new air traffic entity avoids the governance flaws that left those agencies still unduly dependent on Congress. Still, the stronger demand for air travel, as opposed to train rides and first-class letters, gives reason to hope Mr. Shuster’s proposed entity will at least be financially solvent.
Objections, so far, come from a single commercial carrier (Delta), thebusiness aviation lobby and certain congressional Democrats who resist transferring Congress’s power to a nonprofit corporation — to the point that they’re making common cause with a profit-making corporation and the private-jet set. These strange bedfellows should not have veto power over a promising reform, even if it wasn’t made in the USA.
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