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You’ve Been Cleared for a Faster Landing

Washington, D.C., June 5, 2017 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446
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You’ve Been Cleared for a Faster Landing
Trump’s air-traffic spinoff would be a great flight forward.

June 5, 2017

An evening stranded on an O’Hare airport runway is enough to make anyone mad, and on Monday Donald Trump responded with a plan for improving American air travel. The President endorsed spinning off air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration, a decades-old idea that would improve passenger experience and safety.

Mr. Trump announced principles for converting air-traffic control into a nonprofit. The new entity would be governed by a board of directors, including representatives for airlines, unions, airports and others. Instead of taxes, the outfit would be funded by user fees, which is how Canada has financed air-traffic services since 1996. The outline makes small tweaks to House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster’s proposal that stalled last year.

The proposal is being dismissed as one of Mr. Trump’s eccentric obsessions, though Al Gore supported a version in the 1990s. President Trump is right that while “every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air-traffic control system still runs on radar,” circa 1945. The FAA’s modernization program known as NextGen is expected to crash through its 2025 deadline by as much as a decade.

One illustration is electronic flight strips. U.S. towers use pieces of paper to monitor a flight’s progress, even as FAA has promised to transition to digital slips, among other technology updates. How’s that going? The product will be rolled out somewhere between 2020 and 2028—to only 89 of the busiest towers, as the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole has detailed. Canada’s air-traffic system NavCanada deployed electronic strips a dozen years ago.

In May the Transportation Department Inspector General offered some reasons why the FAA so routinely fails to deliver new technology: “overambitious plans, unreliable cost and schedule estimates, unstable requirements, software development problems, poorly defined benefits, and ineffective contract and program management.” Is that all?

FAA regulates itself, so a separation would end this conflict-of-interest and allow the agency to focus on safety and certification. This reform is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and only the most cynical on the left could claim a spinoff threatens passenger safety. Democrats will say Mr. Trump is auctioning off air traffic to big business, but the principles are explicit that the entity must be a nonprofit. The outline gives airlines only two seats on the 13-member board.

Some on the right may also torpedo the plan. Among the complaints: The nonprofit would be given the air-traffic control assets at no cost, though no company would buy the equipment in this scrapyard. Another is the suspicion that anything supported by the air-traffic controller union must be unacceptable. Both the Shuster plan and the Trump principles say that current union contracts would be honored, which is hardly a major victory for labor.

Still, the more remarkable feat is how many in the industry agree on the basics: The airline trade group supports a spinoff, and last year so did the air-traffic controller’s union, which said it will evaluate the specifics of any bill. Former FAA chief officers and Transportation Secretaries also signed on. That’s a testament to how inefficient the current system is. And perhaps the traveling public can relate to Mr. Trump’s venting on Monday about having “to circle for hours and hours” over an airport.

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Tags: Aviation