Forget Big Old Jet Airliners; It's Big Old Jet Air Traffic Control System That's the Problem.


Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has fired the latest air-traffic controllers who got caught snoozing on the job and, in the wake of a situation involving First Lady Michelle Obama plane, has pledged for like the 50th time to get some top men on it all. He tells the News Hour:

We are doing better. We're conducting—conducting investigations. And I'm prepared to announce tonight that we have fired two controllers after completing two investigations. We're also changing procedures have having to do with the vice president and first lady's plane when they're flying in and out of Washington airspace.

So, I would say that flying is safe, but we need to do more, and we are doing more, and we will continue to do more until we make sure that controllers take personal responsibility for the most important safety jobs they have. We're doing a top-to-bottom review of procedures, workplace procedures and other things.

More flop sweat here.

Conducting investigations! Changing procedures! You go, guy. Compare that sort of constipatory bureaucratese with how Southwest Airlines (arguably the safest airline flying domestically in the U.S.) responsed when one of its fleet went kerflooey earlier this month: Southwest promptly grounded its entire operation and did checks of everything. They were back up in the air quickly, with minimal (though not zero) disruption to travelers and its reputation. [Note: Go here in comments for better explanation of Southwest's thoroughly good and timely response.]

Of course, LaHood is much more interested in touting bull-dinky new laws about luggage fees and tarmac waiting times, where the government can squeeze the airlines on behalf of flyers. Oddly, LaHood seems to have no good ideas about reforming the air traffic control system (ATC) which the government fully controls and is one of the major reasons for tarmac waits.

Like too many of not just Obama's cabinet but every president's cabinet, LaHood seems blissfully uninterested in actually making things under his purview better. Rather, he spends most of his time going from cover-your-ass mode to laying on new fines and regs to anyone he can. The deregulation of air travel back under St. Jimmy of Plains and a bunch of other Dems (including Ted Kennedy!) is one of the great unalloyed success stories of the past 40 years. Thanks to the end of really idiotic top-down control dictating where airlines could fly, how much they could charge, and even what sort of food they served, air travel is cheaper and safer than ever. But the deregulators didn't finish the job. Airports are still overwhelmingly run by state agencies (in Europe, they are mostly in private hands and much better run from a customer point of view) and worse, the air traffic control system is still stuck in the 1950s.

The video above, "Your Flight Has Been Delayed—And it's Washington's Fault" was originally released on November 18, 2009 and it lays out a completely proven and workable way to modernize and improve the air traffic control system. Here's the original writeup:

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 Reason.tv. "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. 

To subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel, go here.

Reason Foundation's Air Traffic Control Research

Robert Poole's Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Take it away, Steve Miller Band, keeping on keeping on in that old 707.