OPINION: Look North

Spinning off America’s air traffic control system from direct government control would immunise it from the shocks caused by government shutdowns, writes Christian Britschgi of the Reason Foundation

One feelgood story making the rounds is about the crews of Canadian air traffic controllers who are sending pizza to their American counterparts, working without pay during the now 24-day partial shutdown of the federal government.

The pizza deliveries started last Thursday, when a team from Edmonton, Canada sent pizzas across the border to Anchorage, Alaska. It then snowballed from there, with at least 300 pizzas sent to 40 different U.S. facilities, according to the Washington Post.

It’s also a gesture that wouldn’t be necessary if the U.S. had the same air traffic control system as our northern neighbor.

Back in the mid-1990s, Canada spun off its air traffic control system from a government-controlled and operated entity to the private, non-profit corporation NavCanada.

Though the government of Canada still appoints several members of its board, NavCanada is independent of government subsidies. Instead users of Canada’s airspace, including airlines, general aviation, and business jets, pay for the navigation and flight information services that NavCanada provides.

The immediate upshot of this is that NavCanada is spared having to be part of Canada’s (admittedly more tranquil) budgetary politics.

The same cannot be said of America’s air traffic control system. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which operates the country’s air traffic control system—must be reauthorized by Congress every five-years, as must be the taxes that fund it. Salaries for air traffic controllers are likewise subject to discretionary appropriations from Congress.

This leaves the system, and air traffic controllers themselves, at the mercy of our increasingly erratic and dysfunctional Congressional politics. When that dysfunctional politics caused a shutdown of the government on Dec. 20, air traffic controllers stopped getting paid.

This instability has been one reason why the National Air Traffic Controllers Association—the air controllers’ union—has long been a proponent of Canada-style reforms that would spin the air traffic control system off into a non-profit, self-funded entity.

“We’re looking for stable, predictable, reliable funding,” said NATCA president Paul Rinaldi in a 2017 video. “Since 2007, we’ve seen 23 short-term extensions of FAA re-authorization. We’ve experienced the partial shutdown of the FAA. We’ve seen a full shutdown of the government. What we really need to seek is to insulate us from the day-to-day actions of Congress.”

A spun-off air traffic control corporation like the one Canada has, and which has been proposed here (even earning the endorsement of Trump back in June 2017) would solve this problem by getting its funding from fees paid by airlines and other users of the country’s airspace.

Not only would that insulate the incredibly important business of air traffic control from a government shutdown, it would also mean America’s woefully outdated air traffic control system would be able to adopt newer technology more quickly.

“In America in 2017, pilots are still guided by radio beacons on the ground that date to the 1930s, and by instructions delivered via shared voice radio frequencies. Surveillance of U.S. airspace still relies almost entirely on 1950s-era radar, despite widespread use of GPS by ordinary citizens,” wrote Reason‘s Bob Poole in November 2017, pinning the blame on the slow-moving appropriations process and the innovation-crushing FAA.

In contrast, the independent, self-funding air traffic control systems of places like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany, are able to buy new technology off-the-shelf as it becomes available, putting them decades ahead of the U.S. in terms of safety technology.

Unfortunately, air traffic control reform has proven incredibly controversial, and has so far failed to make its way through Congress. Some had hoped that Trump’s endorsement of reform would help finally get a bill passed, but by all accounts, the president failed to do the legislative arm-twisting to get the job done.

That’s left air traffic controllers dependent on Congressional funding, and—when that ran dry—pizza from Canada.

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