Transportation Policy

How to Pull Air Traffic Control Out of the 1960s!

JetBlue and other airlines are signing on to a plan pushed by Reason Foundation's Robert W. Poole for decades.


Braniff, Pinterest

Watch Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue (which bills itself, for better or worse, as "New York's Hometown Airline"), talk up the need for air-traffic control (ATC) reform. He ain't kidding. As Reason Foundation's Robert W. Poole has been arguing for decades, our ATC system is mired in 1960s' technology:

The U.S. air traffic system is the world's largest, but technologically it severely lags behind other countries that have already implemented digital messaging, GPS flight tracking and newer alternatives to the 1960s-era systems still found in U.S. air traffic facilities.

The world's second-largest air traffic system, Nav Canada, was "corporatized" 20 years ago. More than 60 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, have self-supporting air traffic control corporations.

The result, Poole argues convincingly, is a U.S. system that causes unnecessary delays without improving safety. In an age of ubiquitous cellphones and GPS systems, all of us is essentially better-equiped than the people directing our flights around the country.

We all want a system that is efficient, safe, and cost-effective, but that can never really happen under current conditions. The way federal budgeting is done, the Federal Aviation Administration never gets the cash and the approval to toss out the equivalent of love beads, mini skirts, and Nehru jackets and join a technological revolution that would make flying faster, more secure, and safer. Poole, JetBlue's Hayes, other airline officials, the air-traffic controllers themselves, and members of Congress got behind a corporatization bill that passed a House panel earlier this year; the full House will vote on the reform bill in September, after the current recess. Unfortunately, the Senate is blocking the legislation, instead pushing for a status quo that every years get a bit moldier.

Here are Poole's answers to 21 Air Traffic Control FAQs.

And here's JetBlue's Hayes laying out the case for ATC reform:

More info at OnTimeFlights, a website created by the airlines' trade group.

The cover story of the November issue of Reason, written by Bob Poole, is all about fixing the ATC system. It's a great reason to subscribe to the print and/or digital editions of the world's only magazine of "Free Minds and Free Markets." Subscribers get their copies long before the material goes live at For instance, the full October issue is already available to subscribers but behind a paywall for everyone else.

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  1. So what you’re saying is that the Koch brothers have investments in NextGen and you’ve been told to get on with the shilling? Well I for one like good old reliable radar.

    1. I see. I guess SOME of us are just to good for LORAN-C, is that it?

      1. If God had wanted navigators to use sextants, He’d have given one to Christopher Columbus. Instead je just got a funky old trench coat and a wonky eye.

        1. Damn, now even my fingers have been infested with genderiffic pronouns!

      2. Maybe Fist would like the pilots to communicate with Ground Control using Morse Code, too?

        You forgot the /sarc at the end, Fist… or… well, any alternative would just involve insulting you.

  2. Christ, what an asshole.

  3. As I see it, the issue is that you are transferring a public monopoly to a private monopoly with public/political oversight. So yeah – maybe the operations/management gets better (and maybe not) – but if the public/political oversight stays the same, then nothing will really change. And the public/political oversight is gonna have to stay in place.

    This is actually a very common problem in a lot of the federal depts. Federal oversight just sucks – and I think its because there just aren’t enough congresscritters anymore to make a name in oversight (like say Proxmire in the day). In that case, the only real solution is to turn the federal agencies into interstate compacts – so the states-in-compact themselves (not congress) choose/change the oversight. Simply corporatizing things does nothing.

    1. It’s all about the Benjamins. As-is, nothing happens without a legislative appropriation. In the proposed model, the funding mechanism is set in stone but the rates are at the discretion of the new entity. That makes all the difference.

      1. Benjamins or authority?

        If we privatize it, then the President can fire them when they strike.

        1. Did you mean can’t?

          In any event, the core of Poole’s whole argument is efficiency via technology. It’s the failure to implement NextGen that’s causing this issue to come to a head now. It’s not general inefficiency a la the TSA.

          1. Good catch. Yeah, meant can’t.

    2. The way it works in Canada is that government government likes to throw its weight around the private government (crown corporations), so they both end up acting like they should. Transport Canada and whoever else has a dog in the fight get to be big important government bigwigs, Nav Can has to figure out what the hell they can do within the outlines they’ve been given, plus all the other pressures. Government makes sure it’s safe and fair, crown corp makes sure it works (and stay within budget). The other private business needs help keep it improving. I’m sure there are some downfalls, but it works pretty decently.

      At least, I’m sure they deny padding their budget at the end of the year to make sure they get the same money just like everyone else does.

  4. NO! Don’t toss out the mini-skirt!

    Everything else there is a yawner.

  5. We all want a system that is efficient, safe, and cost-effective

    We just don’t want to have to pay for it.

  6. I’d like to see airlines do their own air traffic control. Like whoever is the big shot at the airport. There would need to be rules of course, but those rules don’t have to come from government. It could simply mean “We’re not letting our aircraft land at your airport because its safety doesn’t conform to our minimum standards” or “We’re not letting your aircraft land at our airport because they don’t conform to our minimum standards.” Government only needs to get involve in rules being broken, not in setting them. It’s not like anyone makes a profit by killing their customers.

    1. It’s not like anyone makes a profit by killing their customers.

      Doesn’t matter. The second they do make a mistake that kills people, then they will go into either cover-up mode or ‘circle the lawyers around’ and force the victims into proving their case in court. And people will get so pissed off at the runaround that they will insist on the return of public oversight or management.

      Basically – there’s a huge incentive to have their cake (make money when things go well) and eat it too (have someone else be liable when they don’t). See Texas City explosion of 1947.

      1. Bootleggers and Baptists. The Baptists (bleeding hearts) claim that government oversight and management will make things safer, while the Bootleggers (cronies) are set at ease knowing they’ll be absolved of liability as long as they follow the rules put forth by the people who enforce the rules. Rules that bar the entry of new businesses as well.

  7. I wouldn’t make my air traffic control system entirely dependent on GPS…too easy to spoof. The military grade stuff like SAASM would be much better but I would still not count on GPS.

    1. Ah, might there be a slim chance that the aircraft would NOT be using Garmins to figure out where they are???

  8. I see in the FAQ there is an expectation that current excise taxes will be reduced adter the implementation of this plan. My question is, since when has this site become a comdedy site?
    Secondly, everything you want the new ATC to mandate for airline navigation could be done by the airlines on their own right now with ADS-B. But it is they who are dragging their feet. And the military whom the FAQ quotes Mattis as being supportive of “corporatizing.”
    Speaking of which- word games. Hair splitting word games. But I get it. People fall for it all the time.
    This plan reminds me of the Federal Reserve, USPS and Amtrack. I beg you. Don’t.

  9. Perhaps we also need to “splain” to the airlines that they need to start treating their passengers as wanted customers, and not inconvenient distractions. Perhaps “slots” at airports should be passed out in response to Customer Satisfaction Surveys?

  10. They should privatize security while they’re at it. I might fly again, if they do.

  11. When I tried to subscribe, the server would not let me proceed unless I enabled Javascript globally. Not gonna happen.

  12. AIRTRAK??

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