Prompted by consumer complaints and costly delays, a growing number of airline officials are urging a reform that was once unthinkable: Hand over the US air-traffic-control system to a private company.
With a 43 percent rise in passenger numbers expected in the coming decade, there's widespread agreement that the nation's antiquated air-traffic-control (ATC) system must be updated. But the scope of the air-travel problem means that the radical proposal of putting the system into private hands is receiving more high-level attention than ever before.
If such a proposal succeeded, it would be the biggest reform in US commercial aviation since the deregulation of the 1980s - impacting everything from ticket prices to safety.
The notion, though, has long been opposed by major players in the aviation world, namely federal aviation administrators and airline pilots. Their opposition - grounded in the assertion that the current system needs to be updated, not discarded - is unlikely to change anytime soon. Yet the fact that some top airline officials are beginning to lobby for the transfer indicates that the debate over ATC's future will become more animated in coming months.
"This idea is no longer out on the fringe," says Robert Poole, a former aerospace engineer and president of the Reason Foundation, a think tank in Los Angeles. ATC privatization is "the critical next step to preserve the gains from airline deregulation by making the infrastructure flexible and market-driven."
Recently, the push for privatization has been building momentum. The Clinton administration's National Economic Council has been talking one-on-one to members of the House Aviation Committee about privatization models. And during the past few months, top executives at United, American, and Continental have made key speeches calling for the ATC to be turned into a private business.
The reasons to make significant reforms are clear. Current ATC has had an increasing number of runway near-misses, says John Mazor, spokesman of the Airline Pilots Association, and such safety concerns have led to more delays.
The question is: What's the best fix?
At present, US air-traffic control is maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is funded mainly by passenger ticket-tax revenue.
Privatization proponents want to replace this with direct user-based charges paid by airlines. Delays cased by inefficiency cost the industry billions each year, Mr. Poole says, and any savings brought about by the change would be passed on to passengers.
That's been the experience in countries that have privatized ATC systems, including Canada and New Zealand, Poole adds. In all, 16 countries have gone private.
But critics say America doesn't need to go that far. Privatization is "unlikely, undesirable, and unnecessary," says Mr. Mazor. Like FAA officials, he says the current system can be saved, but only if Congress spends more money on modernization.
The key, he says, is to get Congress to spend some of the Aviation Trust Fund, a trust filled by airline ticket-tax revenue. To this point, Capitol Hill has been unwilling to do so, for fear that such expenditures might push the government even further beyond its tight spending caps.
Critics also say privatization could create a serious safety hazard. They point to Britain, where the Labour government came under fire for its continued support for selling off 51 percent of the nation's ATC, despite an Oct. 5 rail accident involving two privatized trains.
Poole and others respond that the FAA would retain much of its oversight on safety issues. Moreover, a privatized ATC would seek liability insurance from the private insurance market. This, Poole says, would ensure additional scrutiny of its safety by those underwriting the risk.
In addition, a private company could raise money much more quickly to modernize the system - making it safer and reducing delays. Using a satellite global positioning system (GPS) could help air-traffic controllers safely reduce the distances between planes, even under some adverse weather. That would allow more planes to fly in any given corridor.
Poole estimates that GPS would increase capacity at congested airports like Reagan National by 50 percent.
"People pay attention when they see improvements and lower costs coming together," Poole says, "which goes contrary to the idea that the solution is to throw lots more money at the problem."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society