For weary US air travelers, some Canadian lessons

Cheaper and more high-tech, the US could take cues from Canada's privatized system, a new report says.

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Following one of the worst years on record for American flight delays, US officials are struggling to fix what are widely seen as the problems: an outdated air-traffic control system, and a shortage of runways.

The answer may be right next door in Canada, which has privatized air-traffic operations, according to a report being released today in Washington.

Since it was established in 1996, the private, nonprofit Nav Canada has cut fees by 30 percent, increased controllers' salaries, and begun upgrading this country's air-traffic-control (ATC) technology from paper strips to computers.

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The report, published by the free-enterprise Reason Public Policy Institute, is expected to have an impact in Washington, where Congress has considered legislation forcing airlines to improve customer satisfaction.

"Nav Canada is an alternative that will have to be looked at very closely," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute of George Washington University.

Part of the US problem, some experts say, is that the Federal Aviation Administration is both a regulator and an operator.

FAA officials "are good regulators," says Mr. Jenkins, "but do we expect good regulators to be good at technology? That's like asking the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to make pills. We're giving them a task they can't accomplish."

Another problem, experts say, is that the agency is dependent on funding from Congress. "This has been a disaster, particularly in procurement [of new technology]," says Robert Poole, author of the study. "The FAA has been trying to modernize for 20 years, and they've spent billions, without having a lot to show for it."

Nav Canada relies on user fees on passenger and cargo airlines. Its governing board of "stakeholders" includes representatives from government, airlines, unions, and airport authorities.

Without shareholders demanding dividends, Nav Canada can plow operating surpluses back into the system for new technology and other capital upgrades, or rebate fees to airlines. Since 1996, it has reinvested US$330 million into operations.

This revenue model has made possible the world's most technologically advanced control tower, located at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport, which opened in 1998.

On a cloudy weekday morning, the top of the tower seems a little bubble of calm - with a mesmerizing 360-degree view. Five controllers - 30-somethings in jeans and flannel shirts plus a supervisor - manage the two east-west runways on which most aircraft arrive and depart.

Old paper strips resembling bookmarks, still widely used to track flights in other towers, here are kept as souvenirs and used to track controllers' breaks.

These controllers wear lightweight radio headsets and keep their binoculars within easy reach. (Looking out the window is still part of the job.)

Each workstation gives the controllers access to several computer screens. One dark screen renders incoming planes as blinking white flight numbers, another gives a detailed picture of traffic on the runways and gates.

Another set of touch-screen monitors displays radio frequencies: Tap here to tune into the south ground frequency, tap there to get the north-tower frequency.

These technologies were being developed prior to privatization, says Pat Lawler, the tower manager. "But being a private company probably has allowed us to move more quickly," he says.

While the Canadian government doesn't track flight-delay figures the way the US does, the airline trade group hopes the new technology will change that.

"Nav Canada is working on a system for benchmarking performance," says Fred Jones, vice president of flight operations for the Air Transport Association of Canada, "trying to assess where the delays are, the soft spots." Nothing like this was ever done before privatization, he says.

Safety, meanwhile, remains the responsibility of the government. "The regulator and the regulated operate at arm's length," says Louis Garneau, spokesman for Nav Canada.

Richard Nye, vice president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, thinks Nav Canada is a good concept but needs fine-tuning. With nearly a third of Canada's controllers preparing to retire in the next five years, he says, more revenues should be used to train new controllers.

"The way Nav Canada has been operated, it has acted like a profit-based company" that benefits the airlines, he says.

Privatizing ATC has caught on elsewhere in the world. Nearly two dozen countries, including Germany, Australia, and Thailand, have privatized or are privatizing their ATC.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body, held a conference in Montreal last summer that concluded, "A commercial approach to the management and operation of airports and air navigation services ... should help governments cope effectively with airport and airspace congestion."

Some experts say the Canadian model may not be a silver bullet for the US, whose larger air-traffic network is vastly more complex than Canada's. William Shumann, FAA spokesman, ticks off political reasons why the Nav Canada model is "highly unlikely" to be copied by the US: congressional resistance to giving up control of purse strings, union opposition, and resistance to user fees.

But the argument for improving ATC technologies is compelling, some experts say. New-generation systems could lead to "doubling the capacity of air space within 10 years," says a spokesman for ICAO.

Furthermore, in comparison to a US focus on building more runways, experts say Canada's model isn't so bad. "A runway takes a year to build," says John Hansman, an aviation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "but 10 to 20 years to approve."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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