Fix the Friendly Skies

On Tuesday, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta made what passes for a bold announcement in Washington, D.C. Faced with ever-increasing airport congestion--and ever-increasing complaints from frazzled, mega-delayed travelers--Mineta opined that airline pilots may soon be allowed to fly around inclement weather on their routes. (The current practice, believe is or not, is to hold planes on the ground, no matter how distant the storms are.)

"It's just backing up the whole system," Mineta said of the current practice, according to the Associated Press. And that system's plenty backed up. Last year, nearly 3 in 10 flights were delayed, with weather implicated in two-thirds of the cases. Mineta, a former member of Congress knows that pilots can safely avoid storms. Years back, he served as head of the House's aviation subcommittee; he was able to ride shotgun in many a cockpit and witness pilots' ability to navigate around bad weather.

Yet it's unclear how many of today's delays will turn into on-time departures due to Mineta's proposal, or even if his proposal will become policy. A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman claims to know nothing about it, or when the last time the policy was reviewed.

What is required to take some of the sting out of air travel? Tinkering with the regulations of the current regime isn't going to do it. What's necessary is a complete overhaul of the regime. Airline deregulation, which commenced in 1978, has been a tremendous boon to Americans, providing them with more than $19 billion in value from lower fares and more frequent schedules; within a few years of deregulation, flying went from being the province of business travelers and the rich to being an common mode of transportation.

But the deregulation was incomplete. While the airlines themselves are allowed to compete on ticket prices, the government still controls critical components of the overall business, namely the airports and the air traffic control system. It's no coincidence that these are the choke points.

America's air traffic control system, which is administered by the FAA, suffers from poor management and is slow to adopt new technology. In many countries, including Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, private organizations funded by fees from the airlines, run the air traffic control systems. It's time for the United States to join them, by handing the system over to a newly created non-profit corporation run by the stakeholders in the air-traffic system.

There's no denying that over the last two decades America's airports have improved tremendously as places to pass time. Bookstores, shops, and a variety of restaurants and bars make layovers, both planned and unplanned, less grueling. But travelers might be spending less time in airports if they were fully private enterprises, instead of owned by governments.

Governments have an incentive to minimize risk, while corporations have an incentive to maximize profits at a given level of risk. Currently it's common practice for airports to enter into long-term leases with major airlines, which then have control over gates and, in some cases, veto power over airport expansion. Where airports are private, the owners have an incentive to use gates, and all space, efficiently, which often means retaining control over the gates to maximize traffic.

America needs new airport runways the way California needs new power plants. Since 1974, only four new major airports have been built. Since 1995, only 8 runways have been built--and only 14 are slated to be finished in the next five years, according to Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines. Over the past decade, passenger traffic has increased by 50 percent, and is expected to jump by another 66 percent over the next 10 years. It takes roughly a decade to get a runway from the drawing board, through myriad planning and review boards, and into the ground. If there's money to be made at the end of the effort -- that is, if airport revenue turned profits, rather than simply paid off municipal bonds -- the effort is much more likely to be made.

But before any private efforts are made to expand capacity, there must be political efforts made in Washington to free up the system. Norman Mineta's bright idea to let pilots steer around storms may be a first step, but it's a shamefully timid one.

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