ICYMI: Your Flight is Delayed
In the November issue of Reason Magazine, noted aviation policy expert Bob Poole goes into great detail about why we need to modernize the Nation's air traffic control (ATC) system. In his article, Poole explains why the architecture of our ATC system is outdated and explores the failed attempts at modernization that have brought us to this point in time where reform is necessary. Additionally, Poole addresses the concerns held by opponents of reform and explains why many of the objections held by special interests against the 21st Century AIRR Act are unfounded.
Every time you board a plane, you are putting yourself at the mercy of an inefficient system guided by 1930s radio beacons, 1950s radar surveillance, and paper ticker-tape flight tracking. Far from being the envy of the world, the U.S. system for guiding aircraft is a backward analog relic in a digital age.
America's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but for years, good-government activists and transportation policy wonks, myself among them, have argued for it to be spun off into a self-supporting nonprofit corporation. Now the House of Representatives looks poised to pass a bill that would do just that. As opponents ramp up their effort to halt that legislation, the debate, which would normally be confined to interest groups inside the Beltway, has begun to spill over.
On the other side are non-ATC public employee unions, groups representing private plane owners, and government officials from small cities and rural America. The opponents see this effort as a takeover plot by the major airlines, which they claim will charge ruinous user fees to private operators and shut down as loss-makers the control towers at small airports.
If the status quo interests get their way, Americans will be stuck with a system that rations capacity at the busiest airports, imposes delays due to antiquated equipment and procedures, and costs far more than it should. But there's still a chance for the reform legislation to make it through, clearing the runway for a high-tech system that facilitates faster and more reliable airline trips, increased safety, and lower costs for passengers and taxpayers.
Old and Busted
The purpose of air traffic control is to keep aircraft safely separated while in flight—in layman's terms, to make sure planes don't collide with each other.
It does this via three basic elements: systems that provide surveillance of all planes in controlled airspace; controllers who direct pilots to carry out procedures to keep traffic organized; and hundreds of facilities, from airport control towers to radar approach control entities to high-altitude en-route centers, where it all takes place. Yet even as the United States boasts the world's largest air traffic system (and even though Americans like to think their economy is the most technologically advanced on Earth), in many ways our ATC efforts are mired in the past.
A bit of context: Most low-altitude airspace, except around airports, is uncontrolled. Private planes are free to fly where they like, with pilots expected to "see and avoid" other craft. But all higher altitudes—the airspace where airliners and business jets (as well as some private planes) fly—are considered "controlled." All planes flying there must file flight plans with ATC and carry a working transponder so the controllers can identify the radar blip that shows up on their screens.
In America in 2017, pilots are still guided by radio beacons on the ground that date to the 1930s, and by instructions delivered via shared voice radio frequencies. Surveillance of U.S. airspace still relies almost entirely on 1950s-era radar, despite widespread use of GPS by ordinary citizens.
The FAA has embarked on a modernization program called NextGen, which includes a plan to supplement radar with a GPS-based technology called ADS-B. But as the deadline of 2020 for all planes to be equipped draws closer, it looks highly unlikely the goal will be achieved. In comparison, the ATC corporations of Britain (NATS) and Canada (Nav Canada) have been using ADS-B across the North Atlantic for years.
Those ATC companies also use digital messaging between controllers and pilots, while the FAA's plan to implement this technology stretches well into the next decade. In the U.S., flight progress strips—that is, literal pieces of paper identifying the flight number, the aircraft type, and bits of information about the flight plan—are hand-carried from one controller to another within an ATC facility as the plane moves from sector to sector in the air. Nav Canada made the switch to on-screen flight progress, where one click shifts the information to the next controller, more than a decade ago. But the FAA doesn't intend to roll out this technology nationwide until 2026.
Studies by the Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General paint a consistent picture over several decades: Despite numerous reforms by Congress—of procurement, personnel, and organization—the FAA's major modernization projects nearly always go significantly over budget and are delivered years late. Meanwhile, Nav Canada's very different corporate culture does more of its "development" in-house, using skilled people paid market-based salaries—an approach that has produced considerably more bang for the buck when it comes to getting new technology into the field quickly (and making sure it works when it gets there).
The structure of the United States' air traffic control system is also outdated. Historically, ATC was an integral part of government transport agencies, and that is still the case in America today. Some 68 percent of the FAA's budget went to operating the ATC system in 2016, while the rest was divided between regulating aviation safety and providing airport grants.
Defenders of the status quo like to describe our system as the world's largest, safest, and most efficient. And that ought to be true, since we are the richest country and there are well-known economies of scale in air traffic control. The largest system should be spreading fixed costs among more users, and as a result achieving the lowest unit costs. But international data show that the cost per controlled flight hour (in domestic airspace) is $453 in the United States vs. $335 in Canada. We're paying 35 percent more than our northern neighbor, and other quantitative measures point in the same direction.
The problem isn't just the inefficiency, or that ATC sucks up a large portion of the FAA's resources. Where the money comes from puts the system at risk as well.
Aviation excise taxes (mostly on passenger tickets) pay for the vast majority of FAA activities. In 2016, more than 85 percent of the agency's revenues came from airline ticket taxes, while less than 2 percent came from business jets/turboprops and private piston planes. An additional 13 percent came from general taxpayers.
Because it is part of the federal budget, the FAA is subject to overall spending restraints, such as those imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Thus, in 2013, when the so-called sequester went into effect requiring cutbacks in all "discretionary" spending, the FAA took a hit. The agency furloughed its employees one day every other week, closed the controller training academy for nearly a full year, and made plans to shut down 189 small control towers.
More than once, Congress has also let the FAA's authorization lapse. In these instances, the aviation excise taxes that fund the organization stop being collected, causing a revenue shortfall. And when there's a government shutdown, most of the agency (basically everyone except the controllers themselves) is sent home.
Needless to say, this is no way to run a vital, modern service business.