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Jewish World Review
Sept. 17, 2007
/ 5 Tishrei 5768
Turbulence Ahead: Think flying is bad now? It'll get much worse if America doesn't upgrade its air traffic control system
John H. Fund
If you think there are more airport delays and cancellations than ever, you're right. The percentage of late flights has doubled since 2002. And as bad as things are now, they're about to get worse. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts there will be 36% more people flying by 2015. If the U.S. doesn't dramatically expand the capacity of its overburdened air traffic control system, the airlines won't be able to keep up with demand and ticket prices will skyrocket.
It ought to be an issue in the presidential campaign that the FAA isn't equipped to clean up this mess. "The FAA as currently structured is impossible to run efficiently," says Langhorne Bond, who ran the agency from 1977 to 1981. BusinessWeek reports the air traffic control network runs on software that is so outdated that there are only six programmers left in the U.S. who are able to update the code. The FAA's efforts to move to a satellite-based system have been plagued by cost overruns and performance shortfalls.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns that if the U.S. doesn't do something dramatic to upgrade its aviation infrastructure, the results will be "devastating." Rationing is already rearing its head as airlines deal with capacity limits by eliminating marginal routes in order to focus on more-profitable ones.
In July, American Airlines announced it was pulling out of Stewart International Airport, a converted Air Force base north of New York City, which local residents once hoped would give them the option of avoiding crowded LaGuardia or JFK. The airline's two flights to Chicago were often full, but running them was uneconomical because of the limited number of landing slots at O'Hare International Airport and the congested airspace around Chicago. "The number of slots at Chicago is not a law of nature," says Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, who has published a study on commercial aviation reform. "It too is a function of how good or bad our air traffic control technology is."
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd says that we can expect airlines to pick up the pace of de facto rationing in the near future: "A lot of small and midsize communities are going to get unpleasant news in the months ahead. . . . Places like Binghamton [in upstate New York]? Forget it. They're going to be doomed."
Some 40 nations, including Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Fiji, have taken their air traffic control systems out of their calcified government bureaucracies and created public-private partnerships or self-supporting public-sector corporations that can move more quickly and nimbly to meet challenges. A 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that under the new entities have made it possible "to implement modernization projects more efficiently," while "safety of air navigation systems has remained the same or improved."
Since 1996, planes in Canada have been controlled by Nav Canada, an independent user-owned corporation that has unsnarled Canadian airspace. Nav Canada pays for itself through user fees and has thus been able to invest vast sums in new technology while cutting overhead, increasing staffing and raising the salaries of controllers. Airline-related delays have declined and customer service improved.
Even air traffic controllers supported Canada's shift to a privatized system, agreeing that having a government agency ensuring safety while also promoting expansion of air travel was a conflict of interest. In the U.S., privatization isn't popular with the turf-protective Congress, but the alternative building more runways faces fierce environmental resistance, and even if overcome would take a decade to implement.
This month I ran into Sir Richard Branson while he was on a PR tour for his new Virgin America airline. He agreed that while customers may rave about Virgin's mood lighting and high-tech entertainment systems, it faces real obstacles if it can't deliver people to their destination on time. "It's one of our biggest challenges, and out of our control," he told me. But it doesn't have to be. Mr. Branson and other airline executives should get together and lobby Congress for a more rational system.
America went to the moon and is on the cutting-edge of much new technology. It's ironic that the U.S. is now a world laggard in adapting its air traffic control systems to a 21st Century economy.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund