Executive Summary: The Urgent Need to Reform the FAA's Air Traffic Control System

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Executive Summary: The Urgent Need to Reform the FAA's Air Traffic Control System

February 20, 2007 4 min read Download Report
Robert Poole
Senior Visiting Fellow

The U.S. economy depends on safe, reliable, and affordable air transportation. Beginning in 1978, airline deregulation transformed commercial avia­tion from a luxury for the few to a service available to essentially all Americans. U.S. companies depend on the airlines to transport their employees, and a growing number of all sizes make use of business aviation: corporate jets and turboprops, air taxi ser­vices, and fractional-ownership programs.

This ubiquitous and affordable air transportation depends critically on the U.S. aviation infrastruc­ture, which consists of airports owned and operated by local government agencies and the air traffic con­trol (ATC) system owned and operated by the Fed­eral Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA and other aviation experts predict seri­ous trouble over the next two decades, driven by continued aviation growth. First, a growing number of air travelers are flying in planes of smaller average size as narrow-body planes replace wide-body planes, regional jets replace narrow-body planes, and business jets replace regional jets. This is increasing the number of planes that the ATC system needs to control significantly faster than the number of air travelers is growing, exacerbating the FAA's funding problem. Second, this increased volume of air traffic will soon bump up against the inherent limits of the current air traffic control system.

The Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) has estimated that not expanding the sys­tem's capacity by 2020 will cost the U.S. economy $40 billion per year because the overburdened ATC system will force significant rationing of airline and business aviation flights. This will significantly increase the average price of the restricted flights, and some valuable trips will be eliminated entirely. The leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have said that, unless the United States acts soon to address this fundamental problem with aviation infrastructure capacity, the consequences could be "devastating." To avoid this crisis, they have called for designing and setting up an ATC system that can safely and efficiently handle this heavier demand.

A Window of Opportunity

The current authori­zation of the FAA expires on September 30, 2007, which means that Congress will need to address the problems of the air traffic control system in this ses­sion. By itself, the fundamental mismatch between the growth in air traffic and the growth in FAA revenue poses a serious problem, but the FAA needs an additional $1 billion per year to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) over the next 20 years. For the past year, the FAA has been developing a user fee-based funding reform proposal that could provide a starting point for this aspect of the reauthorization debate.

However, two other key factors that coincide with this scheduled reauthorization argue for reform that goes beyond just the question of fund­ing. Within the next year or so, the JPDO will have developed a plan to phase in NGATS over the next 20 years. Implementing this major paradigm shift- from 20th-century (manual) air traffic control to 21st-century (semi-automated) air traffic manage­ment-will be more complex and riskier than any other challenge the FAA has previously attempted. Simply fixing the FAA's funding problem without dramatically reforming its management and gover­nance poses the real risk of larger and more dra­matic cases of cost overruns, schedule slippage, and systems that do not deliver value for the prices that customers are paying.

The evidence demonstrates that self-supporting ATC corporations have a better track record than the FAA in delivering technology-intensive moderniza­tion programs on time and on budget. They are also consolidating facilities without political interference, which is one of the keys to the large productivity gains that NGATS is supposed to deliver.

Over the next 10 years, between one-half and two-thirds of air traffic controllers will retire and be replaced. This presents a one-time opportunity to recruit and train a different kind of workforce for what will become a much different kind of job. Here again, a self-supporting Air Traffic Organization (ATO) that is freed from civil service constraints and day-to-day political oversight would be much better positioned to redefine the controller's job and make this large-scale personnel transition.

What Congress Should Do

A growing body of evidence from overseas shows that ATC commer­cialization has worked again and again in solving the underlying problems that are still inherent in the U.S. system. In 1997, the National Civil Avia­tion Review Commission (Mineta Commission) made a series of recommendations that would move the ATC system toward a self-supporting govern­ment corporation at arm's length from the FAA.

In light of the global trend toward self-support­ing air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and recent reports and data on their performance, Con­gress should revisit the Mineta Commission recom­mendations and enact an updated set of these recommendations:

  • The ATO should be separated organization­ally and physically from the FAA itself , even if it remains within the Department of Transpor­tation as a government corporation or govern­ment-sponsored enterprise.
  • The user fees should be paid not only by pas­senger and cargo airlines, but also by turbine-powered business aircraft that fly in con­trolled airspace , making use of en route, oce­anic, and terminal-area ATC services.
  • The ATO board should be a true board of directors with the normal powers of a corpo­rate board, including responsibility for the ATO's capital and operating budgets and the ability to hire and fire the CEO.


Congress can open the door to NGATS by dramatically reforming the Air Traffic Organization, the entity within the FAA that is responsible for the air traffic control system. By adopting what has become the global model of best practice in air traffic control-the self-funded air navigation service provider-Congress can trans­form the ATO into the kind of institution that can deliver the next-generation ATC system that America needs.

Robert W. Poole, Jr., is Director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.


Robert Poole

Senior Visiting Fellow