Our Air Traffic Control System Is a Primitive Bureaucracy

It's time to free the skies.


Wonder why your flight is late?

Why planes keep circling?

Why even after you've landed, you sometimes can't deplane?

Bad weather plays a role, but flying is also nastier because American airports use 50-year-old technology.

This shouldn't surprise us. Government bureaucracies are always slow. That's as true on the tarmac as everywhere else.

It's not Federal Aviation Administration workers' fault. They're just following the government rulebook that says you must not change something without getting permission first. You must not buy anything without going through cumbersome acquisitions regulations.

The FAA's new NextGen system was designed to make the system more efficient by using satellites instead of ground-based radar. It would let planes fly closer to each other, speeding up everything. This technology has existed for two decades, but because of the bureaucracy, it's still being rolled out.

"By the time the government gets the equipment, many times it's no longer state-of-the-art," complains Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Outside government, progress happens. Uber replaces taxis because Uber is better and safer. Waze is better than paper maps. My laptop, on which I write this, is better than my typewriter.

Outside government, people constantly invent better computers, phones, foods, music…

Within government, people follow the old rules.

So President Trump did the right thing when he said he wants to privatize air-traffic control.

"Our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past," said the president. "Billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays, we're still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn't work."

Trump is right. "Antiquated, horrible" are common descriptions of government monopolies everywhere.

The usual crowd of statists condemned privatization. "Fees will go up, seat size will go down," complained Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

He reminds me of the senators who warned that natural gas prices would "skyrocket" if Ronald Reagan lifted price controls. The opposite happened—prices dropped. Deregulation brought private-sector competition. Competition made all of us better off. I wish Schumer understood that.

The private plane industry worries about paying higher landing fees. But that'd probably be fair. We small plane users freeload off commercial aviation. Hundreds of passengers on a big jet sometimes wait for a Cessna to land. Everyone should pay user fees to cover costs we impose.

Some resisters of change claim skies will become "chaos" because rival air-traffic control services won't talk to each other.

This is absurd. Privatization is not a risky libertarian experiment. Canada privatized 20 years ago. There's no "chaos." There are fewer delays.

Sixty countries now have forms of user-fee-supported air-traffic control.

Some are developing ways for each plane to use computers to keep track of its proximity to other planes and change flight plans to avoid getting too close.

"These countries already use advanced tracking and communications technology that our controllers can only dream about," says the Reason Foundation's Bob Poole.

Poole has researched transportation alternatives for decades. He says, "Upgraded air traffic control technology would mean shorter lines for planes waiting to take off, more direct routes between cities and fewer delays for planes waiting to land. That would result in shorter trip times, less fuel used and fewer emissions."

In the 1980s and '90s, both Democrats and Republicans talked about privatizing air-traffic control. But that stopped after Sept. 11, 2001. When people are scared, they want government in control.

But government control means centralized control that avoids disaster by operating slowly, hyper-cautiously checking routes and runways one at a time instead of adjusting instantaneously as weather or landing conditions change.

In today's world of satellite navigation and digital communications, pilots across America radio the same air-traffic controller to ask for permission to switch flight plans one by one. Controllers still put paper flight strips in little plastic holders and pass them from one controller to another, much like a bartender sliding a beer down a bar. All this human interaction sends ripples of delay through the crowded skies.

Private is better. It's already working elsewhere. There's no reason to keep customers—and exhausted air-traffic controllers—trapped in a primitive monopoly.



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  1. While I don’t necessarily agree with the privatization of the ATC system, I have to agree that the current system is a disaster waiting to happen. IMO, there is far more danger in flying from the antiquated ATC system (and NOT the controllers) than from any terrorist.

    1. Then why would you not agree on privatization? Especially when there are already existing examples of how much better it works – such as in Canada – than our current system.

      1. Canada ATC is only “private” in a very special sense. First, it is highly regulated in every respect of its operations. Second, its equity ownership is determined by the government (half government and public-service unions, half aviation operators – no private shareholders allowed). Third, although it raises debt (not equity) to fund its investment on the public markets, almost all its actual debt funding comes from specialist investors in public-private schemes: sovereign investment funds, public-sector pension funds, private equity in government-sponsored infrastructure spending. Sure, it charges commercial fees for commercial services. But it does NOT do so in anything like an open market.

        As I’ve said, I think the Canadian (and UK etc etc) model provides a far better path for the US future. But is it “privatization”? Not so much.

  2. Another example of how slow government procurement is: The F-22 electronics went through two or three redesigns because the existing design was based on parts which were no longer manufactured.

    20-25 years development! And the P-51 went from fresh sheets on the drawing board to first flight in less than 90 days!

    I have long since stopped waiting for government to do anything right.

  3. There’s no reason that the government must control the air traffic control system. Undoubtedly privatization will upset some politicians’ rice bowls.

  4. It’s articles like this that remind me that renew my skepticism of journalism, where I know I know more about the subject than the journalist (as a pilot) and can see how many things are kind of correct, not completely correct, or on the verge of misleading. So yes, the US ATC system (and loads of our other aviation systems: we still use teletype and Morse code fcol) is outdated and cumbersome. But we certainly do have hefty fees at big, busy airports that discourage us from flying small, slow planes into places where they’ll inconvenience commercial jets – you don’t need much more than a quick Google search to learn about that.

    1. Oh sure that’s true at a place like Ohare, but you go to any regional and that kind of stuff does certainly happen. There’s simply no good argument for keeping this dangerously outdated system run by the dangerously incompetent government

      1. Wrong, fees are already in place at many regional airports, and many airports in use by ga planes do not have any airliners landing. So why should I have to pay user fees to land and take off at my local small airport?

        General aviation is already in trouble, user fees will kill it off. Then only this with very deep pockets will be able to afford to fly a small airplane

        1. Do you think I should pay your fees?

  5. As a private aircraft owner who uses flies regularly, I would love to see U.S. ATC privatized, assuming the fee structure adopted is fair. We currently fund ATC (partially) via taxes on the fuel used, which is pretty fair.

    The current problems with ATC occur primarily because we have only 30 or so large hub airports in America (why?), and getting a large number of passenger-carrying aircraft in and out of them safely, efficiently and on time–especially when the weather is shit–is complicated. Meanwhile, general aviation (GA–privately owned/operated aircraft) pilots rarely face the problem of getting to a specific airport at a specific time, which means they can more easily change their schedule, or fly to a different airport to accommodate weather. This simplifies rather than complicates the burden on ATC. In other words, the problem we are trying to fix is one restricted almost entirely to commercial passenger travel. Whatever fee structure we put in place should reflect that reality.

    What I and many other GA users fear is that we’ll privatize and institute user fees on a per flight basis; every aircraft using the system will pay the same fee regardless of the burden it imposes on the system. We also worry that the gov’t will both collect user fees AND continue to pocket the taxes it currently collects on the fuel.

  6. I rarely disagree with John Stossel (and I DO agree that the system should be privatized), but I think he’s a bit off-base here. The system is already highly computerized. The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Virginia utilizes giant mainframes that coordinate with the airlines’ own computerized “command” centers. No airliner may depart an airport without an assigned “landing slot” at the destination airport, and factors such as expected congestion, current and forecast weather, and even gate availability are considered.

    “Circling” is pretty much obsolete. Each airport has well-established departure procedures that ensure a steady stream of take-offs, and each has long-established arrival procedures (called standard arrival routes) that blend numerous airplanes into well-managed lines that land on one or two runways, often every minute or so (in case of Atlanta or O’Hare).

    And while the debate continues over NextGen, the FAA and the airlines (and even many private planes) have with little fanfare adopted Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which essentially ties a plane’s GPS and altimeter to a system that sends the data to the ATC facility (with radar now reduced to a redundant role to add a layer of safety).

    DW Bergendorf, author, The Tin Pusher Chronicles, on Kindle

    1. “utilizes giant mainframes ”

      I’m not a computer guy but is that a good/modern thing or an outdated thing?

      1. Mainframes are still in use by many large organizations, not just ATC

        1. Admittedly, mainframes are usually kept around to maintain legacy applications. Does anyone design new applications for them anymore?

  7. Difficult to keep up with all the “Privatize ATC” articles at Reason…..

    I’m wholly in favor of most of what has been written here – national ATC run by the Gov’t is sub-optimal, and flat wrong. BUT, almost nowhere in the world – despite what Reason has tended to suggest – is “Private” in the purest sense. Almost all “private” is national monopolies, funded by public-private financial partnerships And, everywhere, ATC, is a very, very heavily regulated industry, both as to its objectives, economics and operations.

    Another article praised the “privatization” of UK ATC a few years ago. Yes – good idea, overall well-implemented, and with good technical, economic and operational progress being made. BUT – still half-owned by UK government; other half in enterprises that specialize in public infrastructure investment, often attracting their investment from sovereign wealth funds (China, and Qatar are very keen providers!) or big public-sector pension funds. AND, the relevant national government always remains the lender of resort: the recently “privatized” UK ATC services found their investment dry up overnight post 9/11. Who stepped in to put (necessary) spending back on track? The UK government, who put in money in exchange for yet more shares, and secured matching “private” money from other governments and pension funds.

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  9. The author decries the system and thinks changing the overseer will fix the problem. However, the laws, rules and procedures will still be in place subject to the same bureaucracy’s procedures for enacting changes.
    The root cause is the process not the processor.

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  11. John Stossel you obviously have zero clue what you are talking about. All of you need to visit an ATC facility and actually talk to some controllers. Go to Las Vegas or Phoenix and show me 50 year old equipment… I’m waiting.

  12. Nice to see John’s work in this forum. He’s the best at keeping it real. As Howard Roark noted in his summation speech, “it is the oldest conflict in human history, the individual versus the collective”. The evidence is clear. The collective is far more dangerous than the individual and a large part of that is the bureaucracies. I don’t care much about the firemen playing pinnochelle all day long, but the 10,000 Lois Lerner’s in the swamp, that’s scary.

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