Transportation Policy

Air Safety Is Important. We Shouldn't Let Politics Put It at Risk

It's time to remove this vital function from the government budget.

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JFK Airport. Wang Ying Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

Employees of the American aviation industry warned this week that the government shutdown poses "unprecedented" risks for air travel in the United States. In a joint statement released Wednesday by unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, employees said that "staffing in our air traffic control facilities is already at a 30-year low and controllers are only able to maintain the system's efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation's busiest facilities." Transportation Security Agency (TSA) employees are also working overtime without pay, and many have called in sick during the shutdown so that they can work other jobs.

Aviation unions are right to call attention to possibly increased risks to aviation safety (air traffic control) and security (checkpoint screening) due to controllers and screeners going for long periods without pay.

This is not because of any malfeasance on the part of these employees. Instead, it is a predictable consequence of increasing fatigue brought about by working excessive overtime and the stress of not getting paid. Overtime is occurring as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration, respectively, attempt to cope with staffers calling in sick, or—in the case of some controllers—deciding to retire, rather than continuing on without paychecks or enough fellow workers.

It is unconscionable that these vital safety and security functions are at risk from the growing trend of federal government shutdowns. In the case of air traffic control, about 60 other countries have de-politicized air traffic control, removing this vital function from the government budget by setting it up as a self-supporting corporate entity—generally either a government corporation or a nonprofit, private corporation. Fees and charges paid by aircraft operators provide a reliable revenue stream; so reliable that larger air traffic control companies like those of Canada and the U.K. issue investment-grade revenue bonds to pay for modernizing their technology and facilities—something the FAA can only dream about.

Regarding airport security, Canada and most countries in Europe couple national performance standards and regulation with screening by government-vetted security companies. While those companies are paid either by the airports they serve or by the national government (as in Canada), the security companies have a strong reputational interest in keeping their service operating at 100 percent, even if government is late making payments to them. The two dozen U.S. airports, such as San Francisco International, that are allowed to use screening companies have been operating normally during the federal shutdown, with the screeners receiving normal paychecks from the companies.

In other words, we know how to insulate vital aviation safety and security functions from the vagaries of the federal budget. When is Congress going to get serious about fixing this very serious problem?

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22 responses to “Air Safety Is Important. We Shouldn't Let Politics Put It at Risk

  1. I keep hearing all these sob stories about how hard it is not to get paid or not to be able to get this or that government service. And I keep thinking that the real lesson of the “shutdown” is that the federal government employs way too many people and is involved in way too many aspects of people’s lives.

    Also, while exceptional circumstances can catch people in difficult positions, it seems to me like most government employees ought to be able to accumulate enough savings to live on for at least a few months without hardship. It’s not like shutdowns are all that rare. And they are going to get the money when stuff starts up again anyway.

    1. Yeah I could easily survive on my current credit cards over a year. Some people may already be stretched on credit or have bad credit I guess but most should be able to get by if not on savings then on credit.

  2. Your mistake is in considering these functions “vital”. TSA is pure security theater. It serves no useful purpose and should be scrapped entirely. If you want to replace it with something that works, there’s no reason to believe that the role must belong in government.

    Air Traffic Control is a bit more important to aviation but the US’s infrastructure is so antiquated and intensively manual that it’s no surprise to see it collapsing under the slightest bit of stress. Seriously, if you compare our system with any other developed country, we come in dead last. We’re still hobbling along with the same tools and protocols that were invented when the concept of air traffic control was first developed. Everyone else uses far more recent and much more robust systems. Their systems are also a lot cheaper. Notably, they are generally privatized. So again, this is not a mandatory function of government.

    Congress doesn’t need to “fix” this serious problem which they created. Congress needs to get out of the way and let people and businesses fix it for themselves.

    1. I think that’s the point of the article: Congress needs to fix the situation by getting out of the way and turning things over to private companies. Like it or not, that transition will require Congress to act.

    2. So maybe we can interest the Reichpublican Party in a reenactment of the Night of the Long Knives, only this time to take the Transport Sozialist Arbeiterpartei down a couple of notches?
      That seems inconsistent with Tammany ideals of the Political Staat as a jobs program.

  3. So government is bad, except for air traffic controllers? Who are overworked, says their union? If it’s not safe why aren’t they cancelling flights then or closing airports? And remember, gropings not gay if it’s the TSA.

  4. Scrap TSA completely; privatize air traffic control.
    End of ‘crisis’.

  5. Is anyone under the impression that reason is a libertarian outfit anymore?

    Seems pretty obvious they spend most of their time playing defense for progressives. Sure they do all the very soft libertarian stuff, but only if it wont make an actual impact.

    Privatize both air traffic control and security. Dont tell me we must find the fucking government for them. Wtf.

    1. Did you all just read a different article than the one I did? The one I read calls for privatizing air traffic control and airport security.

    2. Why can’t you morons read the article before you comment?

  6. Yeah, no, TSA literally has nothing to do with safety. If anything they are anti-safety.

    Every TSA agent belongs in prison.

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  8. Wrong again, Robert. The Canadian and UK ATC systems are much smaller and less busy than our National Airspace System. Ours remains the biggest and the best.

    1. The EU’s is as big. Russia’s is definitely bigger. Ours is a long, long, long way from “best”.

    2. The European skies are very congested. The issue here is not congestion or complexity but stable funding. NAV Canada works for both the controllers and the flying public. I don’t understand what it is about people in this country that they can’t look at something that works in another country and just go hey let’s put the same policy into effect here. Instead the tendency is to keep doing the it the same way and failing time and time again. Politics will never fix this situation. Great article Robert.

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  10. How about we go backward in time and build reactors instead of sending men with guns and bombs to Baghdad? No Desert Storm, no Saudi berserker suicide jihadists hijacking planes into buildings, no involvement with medieval mystical mullahs and their devoted pro-life parishioners…

  11. Congress needs to fix something, anything, everything and these bums couldn’t fix a flat tire without calling the marines. Congress is a useless entity, far, far, far removed from its original purpose…to serve the people of this country without compromising our way of life and security and freedom. By the mid 2030’s, the country will have gone up in smoke and hopefully the corruption will have been burned out of the system.

  12. As Stossel so often says, “Private is Better”. It still baffles me how Democratic voters still hold onto their compulsively and repeatedly proven time and again failed beliefs. IS there even ONE item beyond national security and crime prevention that Government hasn’t utterly destroyed?

  13. I guess Robert figures that repeating his same opinion for several decades will -one day-convince us.
    There is NO way you can compare the USA traffic with ANY other country (so far ,up to now today.period)
    doing so is sophistry “since you did not loose a thousand dollars …you must have it”
    Privatization for the ATC is ridiculous .The system works .period.
    keep at it ,Robert…who knows one day maybe someone will believe your rhetoric.

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  15. “When is Congress going to get serious about fixing this very serious problem?” You might as well ask when is Congress going to get serious about reducing their power to take tax money and give it to their supporters?

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