Washington Finally Looks to Commercialize Air Traffic Control

“Sometimes, reform just happens,” or so an old saying in Washington goes. Recent weeks have proven the dictum for transportation policy watchers like myself. The topic was air traffic control reform, which seems to have a great deal of momentum within Congress.

Time for an overhaul? A US air traffic controller in the 1930s. (Flickr)
Time for an overhaul? A US air traffic controller in the 1930s. (Flickr)

Late March saw the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hold a hearing with members of Congress from both parties, think tank experts, and a representative of the airline industry. All agreed that it would be wise to reform the nation’s much-maligned air traffic control (ATC) system.

Led by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), the hearing sought to explore the range of options to reform the system, ranging from minor tweaks to outright privatization. There was broad support for a middle ground option, that of a government corporation, similar to NavCanada, the nonprofit that runs Canada’s air traffic control systems.

Higher Quality, Lower Costs

As hearing panelists noted, more than 50 countries have reformed their air traffic control systems in some way in recent years, with many moving to this nonprofit model.

Moreover, few present at the hearing (such as the ATC controller’s union) felt that the current system should be kept intact or only undergo minor changes that would keep the system as part of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The case for reforming the nation’s air traffic control system has long been made by free-market groups. Indeed, the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole has been working to reform the system since the early 1980s.

He was one of the first policy experts to push for commercialization of air traffic control, and it seems that his work may finally come to fruition. His paper for the Hudson Institute released last year offers a great primer for those looking to understand why leaving the government in control of the nation’s airport towers is an unwise idea.

Put simply, non-government ATC has proven to be as good or better, with similar or lower costs. There have proven to be few benefits to outright government ownership.

So, reform seems to be happening, and it seems that the free-market types are winning. It’s not often that we see such widespread support for clearly positive policy change. Let’s chalk this one up as a win for the good guys.

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