Every time you board a plane, you are putting yourself at the mercy of an inefficient system guided by 1930s radio beacons, 1950s radar surveillance, and paper ticker-tape flight tracking. The U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system is the world's largest, but it seriously lags behind the systems of other developed nations like Australia, the U.K., Canada, and Germany. As a result, American flights are less convenient, less efficient, and less safe.
In the cover story of this month's issue of Reason, I explain how the United States is the last major country to still fund ATC out of taxes, to embed ATC in its air-safety regulator, and to not charge aircraft operators directly for the ATC services they use.
The first time I wrote about these problems—and suggested a solution—for Reason was in 1969. The best option, then as now, is to "corporatize" our lagging ATC system and liberate it from the cautious, stodgy Federal Aviation Administration. In the last 30 years, over 60 countries have spun off ATC into self-supporting companies; these companies are introducing advanced technologies that make our air traffic controllers green with envy.
A very solid ATC corporation measure was passed by the House Transportation Committee late in June, and is now supported by all major airlines, pilots' unions, and the air traffic controllers' union. Despite a major propaganda campaign against it, the bill is expected to reach the House floor in early October. It's best to be prepared to be disappointed, yet again, by vicious interest-group politics and the powerful forces who benefit from of the status quo. But after five decades of work, real reform may be close at hand.