How to Ground Plane Delays


If you've taken an airline trip recently, chances are you've had to pay with more than money. You've probably also had to pay with your time, as your plane was kept sitting on the ground well past departure time, thanks to "air traffic control delays." Such delays are becoming all too common. During one four-day period in May, 79 out of 86 Pan Am flights scheduled to land at JFK between 3:00 and 6:00 P.M. were delayed by air traffic control (ATC). Officials of Pan Am, Piedmont, United, and US Air have been complaining vociferously that ATC delays threaten their ability to continue operating.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which provides ATC for the nation's commercial airlines, admits that the delays are a matter of policy. "The delays you see are the safety valve in the system,"FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman told the New York Times in June. But many observers question the adequacy of this safety valve. News reports have recounted an alarming number of near-collisions during the past six months, as the ATC system has attempted to handle surging traffic volume with about one-third fewer controllers than before the 1981 controllers' union (PATCO) strike. And the FAA's own statistics show a doubling—and in some locations a tripling—of "operational errors" in the ATC system.

What's happened is that the economic recovery has finally permitted the full effect of the airline deregulation of 1978 to be felt. Today there are 123 interstate scheduled airlines in operation, compared with just 36 before deregulation. Competitive pressures have led to a shift to efficient hub-and-spoke route systems, which concentrate large numbers of arrivals and departures within short time periods at major hub airports to facilitate connections. Unfortunately, the FAA's supposedly rebuilt post-PATCO-strike air traffic control system is proving wholly inadequate, in terms of both physical capacity at airports and personnel capacity in the control rooms.

The FAA's system is a classic example of bureaucratic socialism. It is run along military lines, with a kind of Corps of Engineers mentality. "There is no substitute for concrete and asphalt when you're talking about airport capacity," intoned new FAA Administrator Donald Engen in May, completely ignoring the role of prices in equating supply and demand. So because new concrete cannot be provided in the near term, the FAA's reflexive response is bureaucratic allocation of the scarce resource of landing and take-off slots.

Late in June, Engen addressed the personnel capacity problem by agreeing to add several thousand more controllers over the next 18 months. Even so, the airline industry rightly suspects that the FAA plans to utilize "flow control"—holding aircraft on the ground to ease controllers' workloads at busy periods—virtually indefinitely. And that prospect threatens to undo the benefits of airline deregulation. As United chairman Richard J. Ferris has put it, schedule control by the FAA is simply "a different and more insidious form of regulation.…In effect, what's happening is 'Goodbye, CAB; hello, schedule control.'"

What's needed to solve the problem is to move air traffic control into the marketplace, as recently endorsed by the national secretary of the US Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Ultimately, ATC should be recognized as a business activity, just like airline communications (which has always been provided by ARINC, a not-for-profit, airline-owned corporation). Users should pay for ATC services in proportion to their use, at prices that reflect supply and demand.

Several steps toward such a system could be taken right away, alleviating the system's present bottlenecks and removing the threat of FAA reregulation. The first step would be to authorize airport operators to charge market-determined landing and take-off fees. This would solve the immediate physical-capacity problem at busy airports by competitive bidding for access slots. The Transportation Department has recently asked for public comment on a proposal that would allow slots to be bought and sold at four busy airports.

Bidding for slots would put newcomer airlines on an equal footing with established airlines in the competition for airport access. Under the present system of allocation by committee, established airlines have received the lion's share of slots. But with market pricing, newcomers could bid for slots with their dollars, just as they bid for 727s and DC-9s.

Even with the slot problem solved, there would remain the problem of too few experienced controllers. That problem could be solved by a rapid expansion of the FAA's fledgling contract-tower program (see "Towering Entrepreneurs," by John Doherty, REASON, May 1983). Operation of several dozen of the smallest (Level I) airport control towers is now contracted out to private firms, typically at one-third to one-half less cost than under direct FAA operation.

There are currently 126 Level I and 157 Level II towers (the smallest two out of five categories). If all of those towers were contracted out, their 2,316 controllers could be reassigned to busy Level IV and V towers and to en-route control centers. This would relieve the shortage by providing experienced controllers where they're most needed, rather than hiring thousands of raw recruits as trainees. And it would avoid the sticky issue of the FAA hiring former PATCO controllers.

Finally, to hasten the transition to fully private ATC, it is time for a large-scale demonstration project to show that privatization can work at large, complex facilities, as well as at small towers. The FAA should go out to bid for a contractor to operate one of the major en-route control centers for a several-year period. Aerospace firms such as Bendix, Lear-Siegler, and Lockheed have all operated large-scale ATC systems on contract overseas, as has the British firm International Aeradio, Ltd. A geographically isolated region such as south Florida would make an excellent test area for such privatization.

The time for action on air traffic control is now. Continued operation of this vital system by a regulation-minded bureaucracy is a major threat to the robust, competitive airline industry that is now emerging. To preserve the very real consumer gains of airline deregulation, air traffic control must be deregulated, as well.