Not The Answer for Air Traffic Control

March 21, 2016

The following is the full-length response opinion piece by Tom Hendricks’ excerpted by the Denver Post.

The Denver Post’s March 12th editorial, “The remedy for aviation delays,” endorsing a congressional proposal to create a federally chartered air traffic control corporation, is rooted in a number of factual errors that call into question the basis for the Post’s support. In fact, the creation of a federally chartered, not-for-profit air traffic control corporation will erode aviation system safety, stifle the deployment of new technologies and saddle the traveling public with ever increasing travel costs.

The Post’s first factual misstatement centers on the corporation’s governance. Federally chartering an air traffic control corporation, the Post implies, means the U.S. government somehow supervises it. While such corporations are required to provide annual independent audits and reports to Congress, controversies surrounding such corporations often come down to issues of managerial accountability and fiduciary responsibility. The Post itself noted the record of another such corporation, the Post Office. But other examples include Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Red Cross and the Smithsonian. It is notable that each of these federally chartered institutions have required in their history some form of government intervention.

Next, the Post implies the corporation would be overseen by the government. Wrong. The corporation would be controlled by a 13-member board of aviation insiders. In fact, one indisputable fact at the legislative hearing on the proposal – the nation’s airlines would have effective control of the board.

The Post also buys into an argument put forward by many of the principal supporters of this proposal, largely academics and economists, about the level of modernization of the air traffic control system. These experts sorely lack the necessary operational experience and expertise required to develop a fully integrated perspective of the “puts and takes” critical to ensuring a balanced approach to safeguarding the unprecedented level of safety performance that is the hallmark of the U.S. air traffic control system.

Among other things, this lack of real world depth of experience blithely leads to simplistic pronouncements such as “a blip is just a blip” when referring to aircraft displayed on air traffic control systems and similarly, that the U.S. is “using World War II technology” as the foundation for our air traffic control system. These views are simplistic, uninformed and clearly point to an academic, not operational view of reality.

The incredibly robust U.S. air traffic control system is modern, highly-integrated and provides for an extremely high level of continuity in the face of disruptive meteorological and technological challenges. This system was designed with the predominant users of the system in mind – major airlines. One must only visit state-of-the-art FAA facilities like the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, the FAA Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in New Jersey and others to realize that these extremely robust and modern facilities leave “World War II” technology in the dust. These facilities, along with the Enroute Automation Modernization-equipped high altitude enroute air traffic control centers, are already fusing multiple sensor sources, including radar, Global Positioning System inputs and other sources into these highly-integrated systems.

We understand the idea of creating an air traffic control corporation is appealing to many, including the Post, as a way to address budgetary stability at the FAA. But doesn’t the Department of Defense deserve a little budgetary stability? What about federal law enforcement or programs to assist the poor with their heating bills, could they use a little budget stability? The FAA isn’t the only part of the federal budget that needs relief from political in-fighting over the budget.

Air traffic control is a monopoly and the governance of this proposed corporation is already precooked in the proposal endorsed by the Post to pick its winners and losers, leaving the consumer and general aviation largely on the outside looking in.