Government Spending

Air Traffic Control Modernization Held Hostage by FAA Shutdown

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The partial shutdown of the FAA came about because Congress failed to agree on extending the current law (and therefore the aviation excise taxes that fund most of FAA). This has been going on since autumn 2007, when the previous authorization expired. The bill Congress failed to pass last week would have been the 21st short-term extension of the old law.

Edward Wyatt at The New York Times writes:

The F.A.A. is not some esoteric financial concept like the debt ceiling — an issue that has some lawmakers proclaiming the end is nigh while others bluster that it does not really matter. The aviation agency holds the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers in its hands every day, overseeing the nation's airports and the air traffic controllers who make sure that tens of thousands of flights a day take off and land safely.

"It's amazingly aberrant behavior on the part of our lawmakers that they haven't been able to get a bill approved since 2007," said Marion C. Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, who from 2002-7 was the F.A.A. administrator, the agency's top official.

The issue is not merely a question of whether the F.A.A. might have to delay some spending on little-used airports in the districts of powerful legislators. Their dependence on a stream of short-term F.A.A. allocations has led airports to have to bid out projects one small chunk at a time, raising costs and inconveniencing travelers.

What this means is that modernization of the air traffic control system is still largely on hold.  This is a $20 billion or more program that FAA must fund in dribs and drabs, as Congress gradually appropriates annual funding. But repeated extensions of the old authorization make realistic long-term planning for air traffic control modernization nearly impossible. 

The situation is absurd.

Not a single one of the numerous issues holding up the FAA bill concerns air traffic control. The latest stumbling block was over how small the cutback would be in the subsidy program for airline service to small towns. Another major sticking point is the House's effort to overturn a recent change in policy on airline unionization by the National Mediation Board. There have been battles over foreign aircraft repair stations, FedEx workers, slots at Reagan National Airport, and many other issues. Yet not one of those contentious issues has anything to do with air traffic control, which is about 80 percent of FAA's budget.

Isn't there a better way to fund air traffic control modernization? Any business faced with a $20 billion modernization agenda would finance the investment, probably issuing long-term bonds to be paid off from future sales revenue. But as a government agency, the FAA is stuck with annual appropriations, of uncertain timing—and now, a hiatus in the whole program.

Among all serious developed countries, the United States is the only one left that funds air traffic control this way. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and dozens of other countries have all de-politicized their air traffic control systems, by "commercializing" their air traffic control providers—turning them into separate corporate entities that are self-funding, getting paid by their aviation customers. That revenue stream is predictable enough that the company can issue revenue bonds to fund capital investments in facilities and equipment. 

Nav Canada was commercialized in 1996, after Canada passed legislation authorizing the change from a government department to a self-supporting not-for-profit corporation. Since the transition, Nav Canada has developed into one of the world's best air traffic control providers. It has won the Eagle Award as 'number one' in air traffic control from the International Air Transport Association three different times, including last year. Like many of its European counterparts, Nav Canada has an investment-grade bond rating.

De-politicizing the air traffic control system is such a good idea that it was recommended by Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government shop, the National Performance Review, back in 1994, and the Clinton administration introduced a bill to create a self-supporting air traffic control corporation in 1995. Congress, however, refused to let go, and the bill died.

I hope the current shutdown of FAA's NextGen modernization program serves as a wake-up call to airlines and the traveling public. We desperately need to modernize our 1960s-era air traffic control system. But if we cling to the government-as-usual status quo, this is increasingly unlikely to happen.

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  1. Lets not refund them, lets let the private sector take over, at least then they could get fired for sleeping on the job, as far as airport imporvments, we pay taxes to each airport oh i am sorry fees, every time we take off and land, let them use the money that they were supposed to for it.

    1. Seriously, when did Reason start publishing communist propaganda?

  2. The aviation agency holds the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers in its hands every day, overseeing the nation’s airports and the air traffic controllers who make sure that tens of thousands of flights a day take off and land safely.

    Written with the same melodramatic flair typical of the Times.

    Aviation companies are more than encouraged by profit and loss to keep those airplanes safely flying. Only the statist fucks at the Times believe the FAA keeps ’em up there with their mighty hands, like Atlas.

    1. Atlas Dropped the Airplanes.

      1. *Shrugs*
        My hands were full…

  3. Since the transition, Nav Canada has developed into one of the world’s best air traffic control providers.

    You know, while I don’t doubt that Nav Canada is much, much, much better than anything any government could conjure up, I think this “non-profit” thing is pure bullshit. My guess is that they’re reaping profits, except they call it something else so it is NOT reported as “profit.”

    Without profits you can’t plan growth or pay dividends.

    1. Without profits you can’t plan growth or pay dividends.

      Non-profit doesn’t mean they’re not making boatloads of cash. It just means they won’t be paying dividends.

      1. For example, Harvard is “non-profit,” which means that they stick their boatloads of profit into an endowment.

      2. Re: Paul,

        Non-profit doesn’t mean they’re not making boatloads of cash. It just means they won’t be paying dividends.

        Indeed. What I don’t get is this insistence of calling them “non-profit,” as if that made those companies morally superior to for-profit ones.

        Unless, that way, they hide their profits from the tax man… Ah, I am beginning to see…

        Camouflage!

        1. Since we agreed earlier that taxation is theft, then it stands to reason that non-profit organizations not paying taxes are morally superior to for-profit organizations paying taxes.

          1. Depends on your point of view. To me a company that uses its’ non-profit charter to divert a greater portion of economic gains to its’ executives, while using its’ badge of non-profit status to imply that its’ decisions are driven by greed has a less tenuous claim to moral superiority than one who acknowledges that providing revenue to its’ shareholders is one of its’ primary goals.

            1. grrrrrr. make that “aren’t driven by greed”

    2. Non-Profits are just businesses that don’t have to pay taxes.

      1. I work for navcan. Any profit the company makes is proportionally converted into reductions in service fees to the airlines who are the biggest stakeholders.

        While it has shed much of the fat of its federal government days (redundant layers of management) it still holds many traits of its bureaucratic heritage (unions, generous pension plan, etc. ) Certainly isn’t any less “safe” than federally run air traffic services, in spite of what many anti privatization alarmists would have you think.

  4. We will probably never get air traffic control systems modernized as long as this is a govt agency. The failed effort to modernize (at a cost of a couple of hundred million dollars) was an IT case study in my graduate program, in 1987. I would imagine there have been at least two more abortions since then.

  5. It’s amazingly aberrant behavior on the part of our lawmakers that they haven’t been able to get a bill approved since 2007

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  6. Is there anything that air traffic controllers do that can’t be done with a computer?

      1. (electric sheep DO NOT COUNT)

    1. I assure you there are people at work on this but it’s not there yet.

    2. Goldbrick all day at work?

  7. AWOL soldier had bomb materials near Ft. Hood

    KILLEEN, Texas (AP) ? An AWOL Muslim soldier who had been granted conscientious objector status earlier this year was arrested and bomb-making materials were found in his motel room near Fort Hood, the same Texas Army post where 13 people were killed in a 2009 shooting rampage blamed on an Army psychiatrist, an FBI spokesman said Thursday.

    Killeen police arrested Pfc. Naser Abdo, 21, on Wednesday and agents found firearms and “items that could be identified as bomb-making components, including gunpowder,” in his motel room, said FBI spokesman Erik Vasys.

    The FBI planned to charge Abdo with possessing bomb-making components later Thursday, at which time he would be transferred into federal custody. He said there was nothing to indicate Abdo was “working with others.”

    No dogs were shot in the arrest.

    http://news.yahoo.com/fbi-awol…..14560.html

    1. So you are crowing about someone being arrested after legally buying 6lbs of gunpowder and being in possession of legal firearms???????????

      1. I’m not a big gun guy, but about how much gunpowder would someone keep around if they liked to make their own ammo?

        1. (thinking about what I learned when I looked into making fireworks, 6lbs of blackpowder is probably more than you want to keep in a motel room, without a vault. If you value your own safety I mean.)

        2. More. 7000 grains to the pound, and loads can use anything from 5 grains (light pistol loads) to 100+ grains (ginormous magnum rifles.) A typical .30-06 load is in the 50-60 grain range, so about 125-140 shots per pound of powder. It’s not unusual for a gung-ho target shooter to go through a couple of hundred shots per month.

          Smokeless powder is a lot nicer to deal with and store than black powder. Keep it in the original container, away from flame hazards and I would think you’d be good.

      2. Because criminals and conspiracists use legal weapons? And possession of bomb-making materials is illegal? And conspiracy to commit murder and mayhem is a crime?

        1. Please reread the article and quote any relevant passages that support your statements. Thanks

    2. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

        1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

          1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    3. Interesting. Why hasn’t Reason mentioned it? Afraid to be labeled “Islamophobic”?

      1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    4. Oh shit, Muslim with a bomb! Oh wait, I mean bomb making materials. Like gunpowder. They’d better have something else, because the 2nd amendment pretty much protects gunpowder.

      1. They also found dah duh daaaaa “bomb making material”, given the propensity that kitchen scales and sandwich bags are called “drug paraphernalia” , I would venture to say constitutes the alarm clock that came with the room.

      2. PC is funny.

  8. Among all serious developed countries, the United States is the only one left that funds air traffic control this way. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and dozens of other countries have all de-politicized their air traffic control systems, by “commercializing” their air traffic control providers?turning them into separate corporate entities that are self-funding, getting paid by their aviation customers.

    That’s some pretty faulty logic. The difference between those “private” entities which have a legal monopoly on air traffic control, and collect “fees” for their services and could be told to do things by their governments aren’t functionally different from the FAA, which collects taxes via the same method. The only real difference is that the FAA occasionally gets partially shut down because Congress is dysfunctional.

    I’m not saying I oppose making their ability to become self-sustaining and not require constant reauthorizations, but doing so would only make them as “private” as the post office.

    1. There could be competing ATC companies. Licensed by the government through objective laws, and airports or airlines could choose their preferred ATC company. Not even necessary to be nonprofit.

      1. There could be competing ATC companies

        You haven’t thought your cunning plan all the way through. That’s like having competing stoplights at an intersection.

  9. The person whose house I’m currently working on was just furloughed from NextGen at the AC airport in South Jersey. He told me it was about this:

    Another major sticking point is the House’s effort to overturn a recent change in policy on airline unionization by the National Mediation Board.

    It’s all about the unions. Which is why I would say “yes”, there should be a better way to fund modernization.

  10. NORAD is pretty good air-traffic control. With our drug war we know when a fruit fly takes wing over the Caribbean, can vector local client air force via CIA FAO to shoot said fruit-fly down, or get F-somethings all over it.

    This was something no one noticed about 9/11, misdirected priorities…

    We were running a No-Fly-Zone over Iraq with enough junk and wizardry to blow anything out of the sky in that country within ten minutes of it taking off. AWACS hunting down Cessnas over the Caribbean.

    But over the financial center of the entire world we couldn’t get one tired ANG F-16 on-CAP twenty minutes after an airliner flew into a quarter-mile high skyscraper, letting the second one hit the second quarter-mile high skyscraper. And no one really knew where those airliners went – in perhaps the busiest airspace in the world – because they turned their transponders off.

    Pathetic, and no one even noticed.

  11. If al gore thought it was a good idea, republicans will NEVER allow it to happen. Better to let the country rot and have planes drop from the sky in blazing fireballs than to approve an al gore approved idea.

    1. lame

  12. So now we’re not just figuratively being held hostage by Nancy Pe-Lousy and the other idiot Dems in congress, we’re one step closer to being literally held hostage whenever we get on an airplane. Nice.

  13. i don’t know that Nav Canada has developed into one of the world’s best air traffic control providers. It has won the Eagle Award as ‘number one’ in air traffic control from the International Air Transport Association three different times, including last year. this surprised me!

  14. The tower out here in my small Alaskan town has a mix of FAA and private contractors running the ATC functions for the region, so there is privatization to a certain extent. I’m not sure whether or not this is specific to this state, but they have the same certification/training as the FAA guys and the only difference is that they are younger, under 35, than the FAA crews.

  15. Speaking of airports ….

    Bitcoin befuddles U.S. customs agents, thwarting Seattle visit by digital currency guru

    http://www.geekwire.com/2011/b…..rency-guru

    (founder of Global Bitcoin Stock Exchange, denied US entry, turned back at airport, after Custom Agents ask WTF is bitcoin)
    http://blog.glbse.com/no-electronic-devices

  16. So, do we know who’s doing morning links tomorrow? Cuz I have… a lot of links to put up. Think more than 20.

    And I’m not getting up before 6AM, Mountain Time. This should work, as long as they don’t give that asshole welch the links, and he goes for 6 AM EST.

  17. What qualifies as Number One? The controllers are polite?

  18. Isn’t there a better way to fund air traffic control modernization?

    Yes, privatize it.

    Seriously though, this entire blog post assumes the federal government has a legitimate role to play in air traffic control, which serves as the premise for the TSA existing. I question both of these premises. Why should every taxpayer pay for services that hinder innovation and increase air travel costs?

  19. If we were to privatize ATC, we would be introducing user fees Like in Australia. It would kill gen aviation as the pilots cost could easily be over the $900 mark for a 90 Min flight with an ILS missed approach ($90) two ILS touch and GO ($115 each) and two full stop ILS approach then Taking off again ($88 each) and Just to USE ATC is ($125 per 30 Min) add in fuel which is nearly 5 bucks a Gal. With the user fees -fuel the cost is about $900 (total is $871 in this sinearo – fuel)( I know it would most likly be lower but Im using this to show how exspensive it would make flying be) Add in, 10 gal of fuel thats a total of $921. With out user fees the flight would be about $250-300 deppending on the Landing fees with the fuel. Please keep ATC under the FEDS. Other wise we will lose alot of Gen Aviation Pilots B. Lose our competitive advantage in training of pilots.

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