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U.S. air travelers deserve better

It’s time to overhaul America’s air traffic control system.

In this July 9, 2009, file photo, Washington's

In this July 9, 2009, file photo, Washington's Mount St. Helens is seen through a layer of smog as an Alaska Airlines plane comes in for a landing at Portland International Airport in Portland, Ore. Photo Credit: AP / Don Ryan

More than 3.4 million Americans are expected to take to the skies this July 4 holiday, and turbulence is a given.

With such a surge in traffic, congestion and delays that leave passengers holed up in crowded, outdated airports are inevitable. But this could be fixed, at least in part, by overhauling the nation’s outmoded air traffic control system, which directs thousands of planes every day as they land, take off and fly across the country.

In an age in which nearly every car and smartphone uses accurate GPS navigation, our air traffic control system still operates with 20th century radar technology and strips of paper. Modernizing the system and fulfilling numerous other basic business functions has been a struggle because the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, a cumbersome government agency, provides the service.

Primarily a risk-averse safety regulator, the agency is not well-suited to overseeing a modern, round-the-clock operation. Furthermore, it regulates itself, creating ample conflicts of interest when it comes to safety reporting. And that’s not to mention how it’s hampered by congressional micromanagement and political wrangling over the federal budget.

These structural flaws have hindered reform.

Indeed, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general recently told Congress the myriad proposals to rejigger air traffic control “have not achieved the expected cost and productivity outcomes.” The inspector noted that “systemic issues impact FAA’s ability to meet its overall cost, schedule and implementation goals.”

To improve, the nation’s air traffic control system has to be freed from governmental morass and reorganized as a private nonprofit governed by aviation users, which would allow better operations while ensuring user concerns are heard.

To see how this could work, we can look to Canada, which privatized its setup 20 years ago. Since then, Canada has become a world leader in developing air traffic control technology and has reduced costs to fliers by 40 percent.

Fortunately for Americans, the concept is gaining political traction in the U.S.

This week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., approved a piece of legislation he introduced that would free air traffic control from government oversight and establish it in a private nonprofit provider governed by a 13-member board representing various users of the system.

Although a similar bill from Shuster fizzled last year, the Trump administration, which has weighed in on the air traffic control issue, has given the proposal more political viability.

The bill is imperfect but presents a path forward far better than the outmoded status quo.

Running air traffic control like a business - not a government agency - would result in a faster, safer and more-cost effective aviation system.

Michael Sargent is a transportation policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation’s Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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