The truth about US air traffic control: It ain't broke and it's being fixed

A recent interview segment on Fox News Channel opened with a jaw-dropping assertion from an airline executive – that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “refuses to modernize” the nation’s air traffic control system. The truth, treated in exhaustive detail in a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, is that the FAA has in fact been modernizing – upgrading its technology – as we speak.

The big change that has been coming is the switch from radar to digital, global positioning system technology. FAA’s burden is to implement new technology while it maintains and even upgrades the existing system, so that the planes can keep flying, all the time.

It’s true that implementation of the new technology, known as “NextGen,” will take time.

The best selling point for a careful roll-out is to maintain the FAA’s excellent safety record. Our system is without exception the safest in the world, and we’d all like to keep it that way. Driverless cars are one thing; malfunctions can be tragic, but they fall short of jumbo jets carrying hundreds of passengers falling out of the sky.

Our system is without exception the safest in the world, and we’d all like to keep it that way. Driverless cars are one thing; malfunctions can be tragic, but they fall short of jumbo jets carrying hundreds of passengers falling out of the sky.

Delays in flying can be frustrating, and it is natural for travelers to demand improvement. It is also natural for parties that should be held accountable to point fingers elsewhere. The airlines themselves have a long way to go in installing GPS and digital on their own planes. In general, less than 20 percent of planes are ready to deal with a perfected NextGen system. Modernization is a two-way street.

The airlines themselves are responsible for most delays. It is up to them to schedule flights. Their own technology has failed, more than once. The airlines choose to underinvest in their IT resource and take a passive role managing their own aircraft and day-of aircraft operations. The reality is, according to the Department of Transportation’s own numbers, most delays are caused by the airlines themselves—more than weather and air traffic control combined.

Authors of proposals in Congress to privatize air traffic control also have some explaining to do, when it comes to the pace of modernization.

As the GAO report makes clear, the brakes on NextGen implementation include hiccups in funding, due to hold-ups in FAA reauthorization caused by the airlines’ push to privatize air traffic control, and a generally dysfunctional budget process that leads to stop-gap “continuing resolutions” instead of fully fleshed-out budgets that are enacted on time.

A related fiscal lapse is the neglect of capital expenditures, a weakness that shows up in debilitated public infrastructure of all types. A failure to invest in this respect, in air traffic control and more broadly, has been shown to hamper national productivity growth, which reduces family incomes as surely as a tax increase.

Efficiency improvements have been achieved. As implementation of NextGen proceeds, we can look forward to more. A wholesale reorganization of the FAA, dubious on a variety of grounds, would push such gains much further into the future.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer specializing in public finance and privatization.