August 1, 2005

August 1, 2005 | Commentary on Regulation

The Plane Truth

Here's a puzzle: The federal government has introduced a program that will improve service for private pilots nationwide and at the same time save taxpayers billions of dollars. Who could oppose this?


First some background. The federal government is responsible for aviation across the country. This makes sense, since pilots need to know that laws will be the same nationwide. Besides, someone has to track the thousands of planes in the air at any given moment, and the government is the only entity really capable of supervising that process.

But just because the government is responsible for a job doesn't necessarily mean it actually should be doing that job. In fact, during the Clinton administration, a Transportation Department study found that private operators saved the FAA money while doing just as good a job as government employees did.

Earlier this year, the government completed 14 months of study into the nation's automated flight service system, the 61 stations that provide private pilots with weather forecasts and flight plans. Thousands of federal employees man those stations.

The study was triggered by earlier government reports that found the system hopelessly outdated. It relies on computers from the 1970s and because of frequent breakdowns is becoming more expensive and less efficient each year. According to one estimate, it costs taxpayers about $15 every time a controller speaks with a pilot.

To make the system more efficient, in February the government signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to run the automated flight service stations. The deal will cost Uncle Sam $1.9 billion over 10 years, which is about $2.2 billion less than the government will spend if it keeps running the system itself.

Not only will the government save money with the Lockheed deal, it'll get a better system.

The private contractor has agreed to hold its controllers to specific requirements. For instance, Lockheed guarantees a live operator will answer a pilot's phone call within 20 seconds and will acknowledge a radio call within five seconds. It's also agreed that flight plans will be filed on a central computer within three minutes. This computer will be available from anywhere in the United States and also will allow pilots to see the same maps and weather forecasts that controllers see.

These are all big improvements. Lockheed is promising to provide pilots a better system, and we, the fliers and the taxpayers, will pay less for it.

Ah, but here's where federal lawmakers come in. A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives recently passed a measure to cancel the Lockheed contract. Rep. Bernie Sanders, the socialist congressman from Vermont, introduced it as an amendment to the appropriations bill that funds the Department of Transportation and several other departments.

Sanders couched his action in the language of national security. "Airline safety should not be sacrificed to support the president's political privatization agenda," he announced last month. However, if safety were his concern, Sanders would support the Lockheed plan. After all, the modernized private system, not the outdated federal one, will make air travel safer in years to come.

But his next comment gives the game away: "This legislation will help protect the jobs of thousands of highly trained air traffic control professionals," Sanders announced. So his action is really nothing more than a misguided attempt to "protect" 2,500 unionized federal jobs.

It's true that Lockheed does plan to close 37 flight service stations, which will require some controllers to relocate. But the company has agreed to keep every current employee on the payroll for some time without a pay cut. So even those who don't want to move will have time to find other jobs. In fact, some already have moved to other slots at the FAA.

Washington has two concerns here: making sure air traffic moves safely and reducing costs. The Lockheed Martin contract will accomplish both. Lawmakers should see that it gets off the ground.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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