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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 1999 /21 Elul, 5759

Joseph Perkins

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Our air traffic system is out of control -- A THREE-HOUR COMPUTER FAILURE a week ago at the air traffic control center in Los Angeles delayed some 137 flights at five airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that the public needn't be alarmed. Air traffic controllers could still see blips on their computer screens. It's just that the screens didn't show what the aircraft were.

Controllers were able to call upon their memories to identify all the hovering planes and to guide them to their destinations. No planes were endangered, the FAA assures. Nothing to worry about, folks.

This is the sorry state of air traffic control not just in Southern California, but in practically every region of the country. Hardly a week passes without yet another report of yet another computer failure at yet another air traffic control center.

Computer failure and resultant flight delays and cancellations are not a recent phenomenon. They have been going on for the past two decades, even as the FAA has spent billions and billions of dollars "modernizing" the air traffic control system.

And the air traffic control crisis is getting worse not better. Indeed, the FAA confirms that in July alone the number of flight delays at the nation's airports rose by 70 percent over the same period last year. All told, air traffic control delays cost the nation's airlines some $3 billion a year, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis.

That's why Continental Airlines chairman Gordon Bethune went so far this past weekend as to advocate privatization of the air traffic control system. It is an idea that is gaining momentum not only within the airline industry, but also within the federal government.

Indeed, as far back as 1994, the U.S. Department of Transportation, under Secretary Federico Pena, recommended that the FAA's "Air Traffic Control Operations... be transferred into a private or government corporation wholly funded by user fees."

In 1997, the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, appointed by Congress, similarly recommended that the FAA's air traffic control function be replaced with a semi-private corporation of sorts run by a chief operating officer and overseen by a board of directors.

So why would a privatized air traffic control system be superior to the present government-run system? Why should the airlines expect well-functioning computers from a corporate air traffic control network? Why should air travelers expect fewer flight delays and cancellations?

The best authority to respond to these questions is Robert Poole, founder of the free-market Reason Foundation, who has written numerous articles over the years about air traffic control reform.

The FAA has several disadvantages, according to Poole. For one thing, the agency is subject to a cumbersome federal procurement process. It takes anywhere from five to seven years to acquire new radar and computer systems at a time when a new generation of computers comes along every 18 months or so.

Also, the FAA is bound by federal civil rules that, Poole says, are incompatible with the needs of a high-stress, 24-hour-a-day service business, which must be able to attract and retain the right people in the right locations at all times.

Then there's the federal budget process. The FAA's yearly appropriation is subject to the whims of Congress. That air traffic continues to grow year by year, placing even greater pressure on the air traffic control system, has little bearing on the resources lawmakers allocate to the FAA.

Moreover, Poole notes, because the FAA is a government agency, it is required to fund all major capital expenditures on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than being able to borrow to pay for long-term improvements.

All these problems go away with privatized air traffic control. Under a corporate structure, operating capital would be derived from user fees rather than from the federal treasury. Procurement would no longer be such a labyrinthine process.

The corporation's executives could make swift decisions to purchase the latest radar and computer technology. Also, with no civil service dictates to worry about, the corporation could pay as much as needed to recruit and retain the managers and controllers they need. Of course, there are some foes of privatization who fret aloud that a corporate air traffic control system would place profits, or revenues, ahead of safety.

But there is hard evidence that this simply is not the case. And we need look no further than Canada, where the air traffic control system has been operating as a private, non-share capital company since November 1996.

Not only does Nav Canada, as the corporation is known, have an exemplary safety record, it also boasts the latest air traffic control technology, enabling the Canadian system to reduce air delays and cut flight times.

Meanwhile, Nav Canada has raised compensation for its controllers by 31 percent and reduced user fees paid by airlines, private owners and operators.

This was made possible by the corporation's tremendous gains in efficiency and productivity, which lower its cost structure while increasing its bottom line.

Nav Canada is a superb model for air traffic control privatization here in the United States. For as long as the FAA continues to direct the nation's air traffic, the nation's air travelers look forward to ever increasing flight delays and cancellations.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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