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What Do the Transcontinental Railroad and “I Love Lucy” Have to Do With Air Traffic Control? More Than You Realize

There’s an interesting piece in Wall Street Journal from a guy who has lobbied every side of air traffic reform. Roger Cohen, a former executive at the Regional Airline Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and Airlines for America, knows the issue inside and out, and gives a great summation of why we’re still stuck with the status quo. Here’s how Cohen begins:

“FAA funding was set to expire March 31, and Congress bumped that deadline until July 15. Although the measure prevented a traveler’s nightmare over Easter break, it hasn’t resolved the larger points of contention: how to revamp a flight map based on the Transcontinental Railroad, a regulatory scheme rooted in the New Deal, and traffic-control technology pre-dating ‘I Love Lucy.’”

Over the years that reform proposals to separate ATC operations from safety oversight have been debated, Cohen notes that the various sides of the debate have circled around each other, dancing and jabbing but no one really gaining any altitude on the issue. The allies this time, though, have changed. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is siding with the vast majority of major airlines in support of the plan to create a not-for-profit company to manage ATC. Here’s Cohen’s answer to why that happened:

“The unions are afraid of future congressional budget battles, and they know they’ll get a reliable stream of funding from industry. Controllers are sick of waiting for technology and tower upgrades. And they talk to their counterparts in other countries and hear what a good deal it is. Canada and several other Western democracies have already successfully transferred their government air-traffic systems to industry control.”

What’s really interesting about Cohen’s piece, though, is how he describes the opposition, which ostensibly is led by general aviation. Cohen gets to the heart of it with this: “Since corporate jets have few political friends, they rely on the muscle of the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association … 400,000 passionate, mostly recreational private pilots.” As anyone who’s actually read the legislation proposed in the U.S. House knows, non-commercial flights (“recreational private pilots”) are exempt from the fee structure, making their argument moot. But AOPA and its backers don’t want their members to know that so they continue their misinformed crusade to keep the status quo.

The FAA is a regulatory agency; it’s not designed to manage the kind of transformational reforms necessary to modernize air navigation systems and operations. ATC reform is a billion-dollar, high-tech program. A federal agency that has this problem, from Cohen’s piece, isn’t in a position to manage the billion-dollar, high-tech program ATC reform needs to become reality:

“The FAA’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy is so constricting that a former administrator once privately complained that he lacked the authority to hire a secretary. Not a deputy secretary or an assistant secretary: a regular secretary to answer the phones.”

Go here to read Cohen’s full piece.