Business and Industry Your Flight Has Been Delayed—And It's Washington's Fault!


As the holiday travel rush approaches, air travelers grounded by delays should take a moment to think about why they're stuck in airports or on the tarmac. There's a good chance Washington is to blame.

"The air traffic control system in the United States is technologically obsolete," says Robert W. Poole, Jr., director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes "This model is basically the same model that we have used since the beginning of air travel."

The technology the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses to navigate $200 million jets is less advanced than the GPS technology drivers use to navigate $20,000 cars.

Poole says the system could safely handle more planes if the FAA used modern technology that would provide real-time information about where planes are. But the funding process, overseen by pork-hungry members of Congress, often thwarts technology upgrades. 

The only way to get the politics out of our air traffic system is to take the system away from the politicians. Why not let a private corporation manage the skies?

That may sound like a far-out, free-market idea, but Canada doesn't think so.

Our neighbors to the north often take pride in their lavish government programs, yet they allow a private corporation called Nav Canada to manage their air-traffic control system. Canada's approach, often called commercialization, has some surprising supporters in the U.S., including Al Gore, who pushed for commercialization when he was Bill Clinton's vice president.

"Your Flight Has Been Delayed" is written and produced by Ted Balaker. Director of Photography: Alex Manning; Field Producers: Paul Detrick and Hawk Jensen. The host is Nick Gillespie.

Approximately 7.28 minutes. Go here for embed code and downloadable versions. 

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Reason Foundation's Air Traffic Control Research

Robert Poole's Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

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  1. Except that the private corporation is given a monopoly with predicable results.
    The mission of the FAA is safety. The mission of a private company is profit. They may be more efficient, but they will strangle General Aviation with excessive user fees when they try to recoup their investment. What has already happened in Canada has validated that.

    1. You have no idea what you are talking about. I am an air traffic controller in Canada and my wages have doubled in the last 10 years to finally reach international levels. Hence controller’s are finally happy. In addition, fees to airlines have continually dropped as new technology has been added and dead weight has been dropped. General aviation pilots contribute a small annual fee which is significantly less than what the fuel tax would have been. Our level of unsafe occurrences has also plummeted. Americans are unbelievable. One minute fighting to keep health care commercialised because government is bad, bad, bad. But whatever you do make sure the government runs ATC as they’re the only ones that know what they’re doing. Wrong in both instances.

  2. Hahaha OMG no way. Is anyone really surprised by this at all??


  3. If giving air traffic control to a private company is a libertarian solution, then would it have to be completely voluntary for airlines and general aviation to comply with it? Obviously Nick is discussing more of a minarchist solution, an anarchocapitalist solution would be to shut down air traffic control and let the airlines sort something out on their own (hopefully with some time to plan).

    1. What is the solution that doesn’t result in large amounts of aluminium rain?

      While the version we have now isn’t perfect, mid-airs are a very rare occurence and airliner losses are few and far between.

      I think the libertarian soluton should be what works. ATC seems to work pretty well under government control.

  4. Seems really strange that Al Gore would be on the seemingly more free market solution than I am.

    I have a couple of issues with this. First, I see air traffic control as a function of national security that necessitates a service. We can’t just allow anyone to flyover our country, and if we’re monitoring the skies for security reasons, it makes sense to simply manage the whole mess. Second is what someone mentioned earlier, that this wouldn’t be a free market solution, it would be, in essence, a private company contracted out by the feds to do the job. While in some ways, this may be better than the current solution, I think that with the security concern, it is better to be handled by the feds.

    1. aelhues, it sounds like you think that air traffic control is a primary source of intelligence for national defense. I think there are a few other agencies who don’t let “just anyone fly-over” and ATC’s primary role is to prevent accidents. If I’m wrong, however, and they are relied-on, in any real way, to protect our skies from accidents AND military assault with that kind of obselete equipment, maybe a private company should just take over national security as a whole.

  5. Anything that fucks with general aviation is NOT libertarian. What can be more libertarian than flying your own plane, bringing whatever you want on it, landing at a privately owned airport?

  6. So your complaint is…the government is not spending enough money?

    This is a VERY old story. Our air traffic system has been ancient (it’s not obsolete as obviously it functions) for a long time.

  7. I love the fear mongering by the controller’s union. Do they really think private companies are in business to get people killed?

    Even if we upgraded our technology, it wouldn’t matter without a change to flight rules. We have bad congestion because the distance between planes is required by the FAA to be very large. Unless we strip the FAA of its rulemaking authority billions could be spent upgrading and we’d get nothing in return. In fact, I’m certain that if Congress stripped the FAA of its air traffic control job they’d use their rulemaking authority to totally screw up air traffic control, then make loud public proclamation about how private companies can’t work.

  8. Having known people who used to work with the FAA, I do not think the whole story is being told.
    1 – Private companies are already contracted to run the networks etc of the FAA with mid-range technology.
    2 – Nick is 100% correct at the pork involved. I have known many people who used to work with the FAA, and a great many of them were far from competent at their position (all chiefs and no Indians).

    If your worried about air travel as being a threat to national security, then whats the point in any of this? The TSA and DHS do a very poor job in that department, and are better at causing backups then providing good security.

    The problem with air travel being run federally, is that the federal system is so caught up with political correctness that it goes for very poor quality. For instance – what the heck is an 80 year old or 280 lb 5’2″ guard going to do to stop me if I want to cause trouble? Seriously people.

    Seems to me that people are afraid of greedy people cutting corners on safety and security to save money. What they fail to see is that the government already does this by hiring poor guards, employing ancient technology, and banning any passenger from having anything to protect themselves in case it is high jacked.

    I don’t know though – with the fed govt squeezing the life out of so many programs and companies who do not dance along to its wishes, how can a private company do this?

  9. Try flying Air Canada and saying we Canadians have fewer delayed fights. Every time I fly AC, I’m stuck at the airport, often, overnight.

  10. Yet another problem that requires 3000 levels of law changes before a reasonable solution can even be implemented…

  11. There may be legitimate reasons to update the atc system, but airline delays are primarily caused by lack of runways, not by atc. The sky is an enormously big place, but you can only fit so many airplanes per hour on any given runway. And that number goes down with the weather. And the airlines schedule more flights at major hubs than the runways can handle, even at peak (good weather) rate. I don’t think any of that is controversial among people familiar with aviation.

    Secondly giving the skies to a government enforced monopoly controlled by private corporations – the airlines – does not strike me as a particularly libertarian solution.

    One free market-ish solution would be to auction takeoff / landing slots at the major hubs.

    Finally the comments about car navigational technology being “more advanced” are absurd. Would you drive your car 150 mph down a street with fog so thick you could only see 1/4 mile, at night, using your car’s GPS to guide you (even assuming no other traffic)? Commercial airliners takeoff and land at roughly those speeds and visibility routinely. In fact they can land with even less visibility. But they don’t do it using GPS. Why? Because it’s not accurate enough.

    And need I mention they do this with a safety record that is almost unimaginably good.

  12. Brian,

    Great points.

  13. I got a mix reaction on it, but personally i feel that private jets are far better option for both employees and customers.

  14. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  15. We can’t just allow anyone to flyover our country, and if we’re monitoring the skies for security reasons, it makes sense to simply manage the whole mess

  16. Why? Because it’s not accurate enough.

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