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The remedy for aviation delays?

Washington, March 12, 2016 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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The remedy for aviation delays?

Denver Post
By The Denver Post Editorial Board

March 12, 2016

Sometimes the truly important stuff gets overlooked in the daily focus on election-year follies. Today's example: a plan that backers say could transform the U.S. air traffic-control system and endow it with advanced 21st century technology.

It so happens that the most technologically adept nation in the world still relies to a surprising extent on antiquated, ground-based radar. And in an effort to accelerate its replacement, the House Transportation Committee recently approved a bill to create a federally chartered, not-for-profit entity to manage air traffic and separate these duties from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA would retain its current role in regulation and safety.

Critics have called the plan privatization in order to rally the troops, but that's unfair. The new organization's board would remain under federal oversight and would be nominated by the government.

For that matter, how many examples of true privatization do you see supported by the affected unions? And yet the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has come out in favor of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act.

It's not that the present system is truly broken. Flying remains a remarkably safe activity, and has been getting safer through the decades based on the number of fatalities per miles traveled. But the crush of growing air travel is presenting a huge challenge to the system, such that delays have become a regular part of flying.

A major reason is that radar prevents the system from being as efficient as it should be; radar doesn't update as quickly as newer technologies, for example. And yet after a decade of effort by the FAA to modernize air-traffic control through the expenditure of billions of dollars, the system remains seriously outdated.

Clearly a new structure could help, even though it's fair to acknowledge that a similar spinoff of the U.S. Postal Service decades ago didn't cure that agency's problems. However, the air-traffic agency needs a secure source of funding that isn't subject to fluctuations generated by political in-fighting over the overall federal budget, and the AIRR Act would help.

But won't accountability suffer in a new, more independent organization? Not likely. That worry assumes that accountability has been a hallmark of the FAA, when the opposite is the case.

"The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the transportation committee. "We have the safest system in the world, and we will continue to do so under this bill. But our system is incredibly inefficient, and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system."

Most other advanced countries already separate air-traffic control from the regulation of safety. The U.S. would do well to follow suit.

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Tags: Aviation