It Might Be Hard To Imagine, But Flying Could Soon Get Even More Frustrating

Anti-tax politicians have slowed reform down by denying stable funding.
05/15/2017 04:39 pm ET Updated May 15, 2017

Nearly everyone agrees that air travel is an uncomfortable and annoying experience, yet opinions differ on how to fix it.

Commercial airlines like United and Southwest and conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation say we should privatize air traffic control, the system now run by the federal government to organize flights and ensure safety. They argue that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to be “reformed” and air traffic control “modernized” by handing control to a new private, nonprofit corporation managed by stakeholders including—go figure—the commercial airlines.

The idea to privatize comes straight out of the decades-long conservative playbook aimed at—as the anti-tax Grover Norquist put it—“drowning government in a bathtub.” It originates from the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole, who in a 1982 paper tried to align air traffic control privatization with the Reagan administration’s objective of “reducing the scale and scope of the federal government.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board—his skinny budget released in March included air traffic control privatization.

Again, no one disagrees that reform is needed—the question is how. The thing is, the federal government has been trying to modernize air traffic control through an ambitious plan called NextGen, yet anti-tax politicians have slowed it down by denying stable funding. The solution already exists, it just needs support.

This week, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing to consider the federal government’s role in air travel, and privatization will surely be up for discussion. Here are the five most obvious reasons not to privatize air traffic control:

The commercial airline industry already has too much power.

The industry is dominated by five extremely large corporations that have consolidated over time through takeovers and mergers to control nearly 70% of the domestic market. Why give commercial airlines power over a private corporation that would oversee fees, taxes, and infrastructure investments, and dictate who can fly where and when?

The airlines pocket their profits instead of investing in technology.

The airlines average one major technical glitch a month and refuse to invest in their dilapidated and antiquated technology infrastructure. One major airline is running a reservation system that is 35 years old.

Small towns and rural communities would likely be left behind.

The airlines continue to demonstrate that they don’t care about smaller communities because they aren’t profitable, taking every opportunity to cut off routes and access. Between 2007 and 2013, scheduled departures at medium-hub airports decreased nearly 24 percent and about 20 percent at small-hub airports.

The airline industry, not the public, is the biggest cause of delays.

The airlines are responsible for the majority of all airline delays. Why would giving them more control by privatizing air traffic control alleviate delays?

The airlines have obstructed modernization.

The airlines have been painfully slow to embrace the government’s ongoing modernization effort. For years, the airlines questioned NextGen’s business case and, as of September 2015, only 5.8% to 7% of all commercial aircraft were appropriately equipped for the transition.

The solution for air traffic control, which is the foundation for safe, efficient air travel, is more support for NextGen, not more control for commercial airlines.

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