On February 15, the New York Times editorialized against a proposal to remove management of America's air traffic control system from the FAA, and hand responsibility to a non-profit corporation governed by the system's customers and participants. More than 50 countries around the world have already taken equivalent steps, with outstanding results. The US has fallen behind in aviation, and without this change, is unlikely to catch up.
Although I am a great fan of the Times -- and a Democrat -- I think both the paper and my party are wrong on this issue. On February 16, I sent the Times the following response, which it has declined to publish.
As a long time student of the airline industry and fan of the New York Times, I am deeply disappointed by the Paper’s opposition to the proposal that the FAA’s Air Traffic Control function be moved into a non-profit corporatized ANSP (Air Navigation Service Provider). The present system is clearly broken and I believe that the Paper is wrong on the facts.
- First and foremost, corporatizing is not privatizing. The proposed non-profit organization will be governed by a Board which includes representatives of the airlines, general aviation, consumers, unions and the federal government. The organization will set and collect service fees sufficient to cover its costs and will be able to sell bonds against those fees, thus providing reliable capital funding. It will be free to manage its business as it sees fit so long as it conforms to safety requirements established by the FAA.
- The purpose of the proposal is to separate the safety oversight and navigation service provider functions, as more than 50 countries have already done. Safety oversight should and will remain the responsibility of government; navigation services should and will be provided by an organization able to provide for its long term financing needs by bonding its flow of user fees, free to compete with private enterprise for the skilled personnel needed to manage the world’s largest and most complex air space, financed and governed by its customers, and free of political interference.
- The claim that Canadian air traffic control costs have increased more rapidly than costs in the United States is incorrect. Nav Canada's charging rates are now only 5% higher than when user fees were fully implemented in 1999, but are one third lower after correcting for inflation since then. By way of contrast, FAA's cost per unit of workload has increased sharply since 1999. Moreover, Nav Canada’s cost per IFR flight hour is more than 30% lower than the same cost in the U. S.
- The notion that safety will somehow be compromised is bogus. While the FAA has done an excellent job of operating a complex system safely, in every country in which safety and aviation navigation service functions have been separated, the safety record has been equal to or better than the record prior to separation of the two. That’s only logical, since splitting the functions removes the burden of self- regulation, in which some level of conflict of interest is inherent and inevitable.
- The idea that creating an ANSP would disrupt the FAA's effort to implement Next Gen - a broad upgrade of the nation's airspace management system -- is a refutation of reality. The FAA has struggled for years with Next Gen, routinely running far behind schedule and far over budget on each of its many components. The financial uncertainty and political meddling inherent in Congressional supervision are incompatible with optimizing technical progress.
- It is disingenuous to claim that the proposed bill gives short shrift to passenger interests. The public interest is never well served by inefficiency, and in the status quo too many flights are delayed and cancelled and too many passengers are left unserved. We need a more efficient air space management system, and to get it, we need to create an organization that will be funded and governed by its customers. Those customers will naturally demand a system optimized for both efficiency and economy. The improved system will allow airlines and others to schedule more flights, burn less fuel and make travel both less expensive and more enjoyable.
This is a change that many in the aviation community have been pursuing for decades. I hope the New York Times Editorial Board will re-think its position and that Democratic politicians will recognize the error of their opposition and work with the bill’s sponsors to produce a change that will benefit both travelers and the nation’s economy.