By The Las Vegas Review Journal Editorial Board, April 7, 2023
The nation’s air traffic control system is an example of how government can’t effectively run businesslike enterprises.
The FAA recently called on airlines to reduce New York-area flights by 10 percent this summer. The agency is supposed to facilitate more options for consumers, not fewer. Fewer flights will likely result in higher prices, too.
The immediate concern is a shortage of air traffic controllers in the region. Another factor was the January meltdown of the FAA’s computer system. That grounded thousands of flights across the country. These events are symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Government-run enterprises, which could be privatized, perform poorly because government isn’t designed to run efficiently. Just look at the performance of the U.S. Postal Service.
The primary reason for this is that businesses and government have different objectives. Businesses want to make money. They’re responsible to shareholders. Government agencies are ultimately answerable to politicians. They want to get re-elected. What makes business sense often doesn’t make political sense. In the Northeast, the FAA needs to shuffle air traffic controllers between cities to more efficiently use its personnel. But Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his labor union allies have blocked the move.
Another factor is the inability of government to innovate. Air traffic controllers are directing airplanes that can cost $100 million or more. But radar operators still use pieces of paper to track information. That’s like Google delivering search results by carrier pigeon.
Before he started preaching that global warming was going to destroy the world, former vice president Al Gore sought to reform the air traffic control system, calling for a privately funded corporation to step in. At the time, he noted the FAA was relying on vacuum tubes instead of computer chips.
The United States never overhauled its system, but Canada did. Its air traffic control operations are privately funded. It readily integrates new technology into its system. It works. Canada also had a problem with its air alert system in January. But unlike here, it didn’t cause major delays.
Government-run enterprises also suffer from frequent leadership turnover. It’s vital that voters regularly determine who makes laws. But inexperienced leadership is a major struggle if you’re trying to run a business. Plus, some officials, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are political appointees who seem more interested in their next job than mastering their current tasks.
It’s well past time to overhaul the FAA’s approach to air traffic control and other issues. Airlines have had their share of high-profile missteps in recent months, but the hidebound government bureaucracy charged with their oversight has only exacerbated the problems.