Between the aborted landing of Michelle Obama's plane at Andrews Air Force Base and a rash of sleeping air traffic controllers, air travelers must be wondering what's going on. The number of "operational errors" in which Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aircraft-separation standards were violated has nearly doubled since 2009.
...The FAA would not tolerate such threats to air safety from airlines, or from mechanics, or from aircraft producers. It regulates all such entities at arm's length—and it has cracked down on airline scheduling practices conducive to pilot fatigue. But the FAA has tolerated 2-2-1 schedules and dark control rooms for decades. Why? Because the Air Traffic Organization, whose job is to "move air traffic safely and efficiently," is within the FAA, which in effect means the agency is regulating itself.
The remedy for this is to separate air safety regulation from the provision of air traffic control services, so as to bring about true arm's-length safety regulation of air traffic control. That may sound like a radical change, but over the past 15 years nearly every developed country (except the U.S.) has made this change, consistent with policy set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
There's another important reason for doing this now. The FAA is in the early stages of the biggest change in air traffic management since the introduction of radar in the 1950s. It's called the NextGen system. Using new technologies and process automation, NextGen will permit planes to fly closer together safely, adding much-needed capacity to airports and airspace. But this will require careful assessment of the trade-offs involved. The safety regulator making those assessments will have far more credibility if it is independent.