Commercial planes on a congested runway at JFK Airport, waiting...

Commercial planes on a congested runway at JFK Airport, waiting for takeoff. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When it comes to deciding who should run what between the federal government and private industry, it’s best to split up the tasks based on who is generally good at each. That’s very much the case with the air traffic control system of the United States, which President Donald Trump wants to make a private, nonprofit entity as part of his larger infrastructure plan. The system employs 35,000 people and oversees 50,000 flights a day. Trump hopes the change would remove air traffic control from government budgets that are holding it back.

For more than a decade, the Federal Aviation Administration has been working on NextGen, a plan to convert from land-based radars developed after World War II to satellite navigation GPS technology. For years, NextGen was promised nationwide by 2025. Now the FAA says it will happen only in increments, with no completion date in sight.

Much of the holdup lies in the federal appropriations process. Experts say completion would cost $35 billion of which only $7 billion has been approved, and create $160 billion in economic benefit. The lack of improvements has led to a system that isn’t meeting all air travel needs, particularly in places like the metropolitan area. NextGen would let planes safely fly much closer to each other than they can now. Postponing its adoption costs fliers time, productivity and peace of mind.

The airlines want this. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association wants it too, now that it has been guaranteed wages, benefits and collective bargaining rights for its 15,000 members would be protected. And privatization of such systems has worked in other nations, including Canada and Britain.

Opponents contend flier safety would be at risk. And they argue that letting airlines pay for the system via fees on passengers would let the airline industry collude to charge whatever it sees fit for the system.

The answer is to split operations and oversight between the federal government and the private entity that would manage air traffic control. There are models for such a division of authority that already work, such as publicly regulated for-profit utilities.

Much of what needs to be done would absolutely be handled better by a private consortium of the airlines than by the FAA. Nimble investment in and adoption of new technology to make systems more efficient, convenient and profitable are exactly what private, market-oriented industries such as airlines do. What private industry can be terrible at, particularly when companies in an industry band together, is charging a fair price, properly serving and safeguarding less-profitable customer centers, and making safety a top priority.

The FAA must always have a role in regulating our air traffic control system. Now comes an opportunity for the industry to decide how to configure air traffic control for ever-modern efficiency, profitability, capacity and convenience. The charges travelers would pay to fund this new system and its safety standards should be approved by the government in a process that protects consumers’ wallets while also providing a reliable and modern system. — The editorial board

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