Flight delays this Christmas?
Flight delays aren’t inevitable. There are proven ways – from revamping air traffic control to congestion pricing – to fix the problem.
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Instead, they decided that ATC should be operated like a business, charging its aviation customers directly for its services and able to go to the bond market to raise capital for large-scale modernization investments. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and Britain all adopted this model, setting up ATC as a self-supporting entity run by a board of directors and regulated for safety by the national air-safety regulator.Skip to next paragraph
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As head of the Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” project, Vice President Al Gore proposed doing likewise, and a plan for a US Air Traffic Services corporation (USATS) was introduced as legislation. But Congress gave it the cold shoulder, unwilling to give up direct control. In 1997, the congressionally appointed Mineta Commission made a similar recommendation, but it produced only an internal reorganization of ATC, leaving it still firmly embedded within the Federal Aviation Administration.
This decade, an interagency effort has produced the NextGen plan for a complete replacement of current ATC technology. NextGen would at least double the capacity of the ATC system over the next 10 to 15 years. But it’s unclear where the needed $20 billion in FAA investment (or the $15 billion to $20 billion in airline investment) will come from, or how the changeover to NextGen can be coordinated effectively.
This is a task far better suited to an ATC corporation (such as USATS was intended to be) that can go to the capital markets for major funding, with decisions on implementation made by a board of directors representing all users of the airspace. Without those changes in funding and governance, implementing the capacity doubling on schedule is highly unlikely.
Even if the ATC revamp is delayed, congestion at major airports could still be addressed in the near term. As Kahn has long recommended, the way to do that is to charge market prices to use runways at congested airports.
Runway “congestion pricing” does two things simultaneously. First, it provides very tangible dollars-and-cents incentives for airlines to shift less-critical flights away from peak periods (and in some cases, to alternate airports). That directly reduces peak-period congestion.
But congestion pricing also produces new airport revenue that can be used over time to increase airport capacity. In some cases, that means installing NextGen-type landing aids that permit, say, 10 percent more planes per hour to safely land and take off. Longer term, at some airports it would help pay for needed runway additions.
Unless Congress gets behind these policy reforms for ATC and airports, don’t look for much relief from air travel congestion. Under status-quo policies, the only thing that reliably reduces congestion is recessions. We can, and should, do better than that.