Delay Action

The other day I flew from Indianapolis to New York City. The plane left when it was supposed to leave, and it arrived when it was supposed to arrive.

Sadly, this sort of experience has become so unusual that it’s worth remarking on. In the last two summers, flight delays in the United States have been worse than ever, and the record may be broken again this year.

The temptation, of course, is to blame the airlines. They’re the ones who seem to be routinely lying to their customers, announcing departure and arrival times that rarely correspond to reality. They’re the ones loading passengers onto planes so they can sit on the runway for an hour while the pilot gradually breaks the news over the intercom.

But much of the responsibility for all the anxiety, wasted time, and missed appointments actually lies with the Federal Aviation Administration. Robert W. Poole Jr., director of the Transportation Program at the Reason Public Policy Institute, says the main reason for the record flight delays is "an antiquated air traffic control system that uses 1960s technology to [meet] 21st century travel demands."

Here’s an example of the FAA’s backwardness: The New York Times recently reported that the agency plans to hire Lockheed Martin "to design and build a replacement for the heart of its antiquated long-distance air traffic control system." To save time, the agency wants to skip the bidding process, because "it has only until 2008 to install new computers before I.B.M. stops making parts for its current system." As for the software, "much of it [is] 30 years old," and it’s "written in a nearly extinct language."

Even without adding runways, newer equipment and software can reduce flight delays by allowing planes to take off closer to each other and by expanding the number of airways between cities. But the FAA does not seem to be terribly concerned about being on the cutting edge.

Technology is not the only area where the FAA has failed to keep abreast of things. The day after the story about Lockheed Martin, the Times reported that "the Federal Aviation Administration’s project to improve its accounting system so it can determine which programs are over budget is itself 200 percent over budget" and "four years behind schedule."

A spokeswoman defended the FAA by saying, "We’re one of the few federal agencies that’s even implementing a cost accounting system." In other words: "We’re part of the government. What do you expect?"

Poole (former president of the Reason Foundation, which publishes the magazine where I work) has long argued that we should expect more, that the air traffic control system should be run more like a business and less like a bureaucracy. In an RPPI study released last month, he and co-author Viggo Butler recommend transferring air traffic control to an independent, nonprofit corporation.

The corporation would be run by a board consisting of representatives from all the "stakeholders" with an interest in air traffic control, including passengers, airlines, airports, owners of small planes, and the federal government. It would be funded by user fees calculated mainly on the basis of aircraft weight and distance traveled, with additional charges for flights to or from congested airports at peak hours.

The idea is to make air traffic control more responsive to the people who use it. Poole and Butler argue that their plan would provide clearer signals of where investment is needed and improve efficiency by allowing the people who pay the bills to decide how money should be spent, freeing the system from "congressional micromanagement."

The FAA would continue to regulate air traffic control, but it would no longer run the system. In addition to fostering inefficiency, that role creates a conflict of interest, with the agency essentially overseeing itself.

Poole and Butler cite the experience of Canada and other countries that have reduced costs and increased productivity by "corporatizing" air traffic control. And they make a persuasive case that their proposal--which has been endorsed by an impressive array of former aviation and transportation officials--is politically feasible.

The credibility of the RPPI plan is enhanced by the level of detail that Poole and Butler offer, including sample calculations of user fees. It’s not exactly light reading, but you may want to look it over the next time you find yourself waiting on a runway.

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