Air traffic uncontrol
You’re sitting in the gate area for your connecting flight. Your feet ache from walking from Concourse A to this gate in Concourse C, lugging your carry-on bags.
Then the gate agent makes an announcement: Your flight has been canceled due to air traffic control. Because it’s weather-related, you will not be given hotel or meal vouchers. You have a checked bag but are told you can’t retrieve it.
You look out the terminal windows and see the sun shining. Why is this a weather cancellation?
The weather pattern is actually at your destination, or maybe somewhere in between. Air traffic control is slowing down flights, canceling a few as well.
Because of our outdated, inefficient air traffic control (ATC) system, airlines and passengers lose $33 billion per year in wasted time and excess costs. Passengers are having their work and vacations interrupted needlessly because the ATC is a government bureaucracy, as opposed to a private, non-profit corporation, and because it is radar based, instead of using global positioning satellites (GPS).
United States ATC lags behind most of the world because it is a bureaucracy nestled within a bureaucracy, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Bureaucracies, plodding and rule-bound, are not known for innovation. Canada completed its conversion to NextGen GPS system ADS-B more than a decade ago. That is because Canadian ATC is not a bureaucracy, but a corporation called NAV-Canada. The U.S. is supposed to have all planes use GPS by 2020, but it doesn’t look like it will. Bureaucracies are also not known for completing projects on time and under budget.
The tortoise-slow conversion to digital means pilots and controllers communicate by phone, while foreign ATC corporations have digital transmissions. Amazingly, ATC controllers communicate in the control tower with small paper strips that are posted after being torn off ticker tape machines.
Nearly 50 percent of all ATC delays arise from the congested New York City airspace, but the FAA for some perverse reason has scheduled New York last for updates. Bureaucracies are also not known for efficient economic calculation.
Because airplanes must appear on ground-based radar, planes are routed in a zigzag pattern to be seen by the radar beacons. Non-stop flights are not direct from point to point, wasting time and fuel.
Passengers in the U.S. pay for this inefficient system in airline ticket taxes and from the federal general tax fund. Congress then micromanages the allocation of the funds to ATC, often for arbitrary political reasons. In countries like Canada, the UK, France and many others, the ATC corporation is paid directly from fees, bypassing legislative interference. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization has over 80 private ATC corporations as members.
ATC reform is on President Trump’s agenda for this session. Reformers like Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles libertarian think tank, have been lobbying for change for decades and are hopeful Congress will act soon.
ATC reform requires separating ATC from its safety regulator, the FAA. It is a conflict of interest for the FAA to investigate itself under the current structure. Then, separate ATC from the federal funding process. Finally, corporatize the structure so the ATC is governed by a board of directors, responsible to the stakeholders and passengers, rather than to Congress and government agencies.
Private business jet pilots, public employee unions and politicians who ideologically abhor privatization are organized to oppose change. It remains to be seen if the Trump deregulators have the stomach to shepherd this reform through Congress.
If they do, you will have less chance of a bad experience on your flight to your sister’s wedding.