Bureaucratic Clutter in the Skies

January 10, 1994

Anyone who thinks directing airliners through crowded skies is tough need only wait until the White House tries to pry the air traffic control system away from the barons of Capitol Hill.

Responding to recommendations by a national commission last summer, Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena is drafting legislation to place the air traffic control system in a government corporation, freeing it of stultifying bureaucratic controls that have seriously delayed vital upgrading of equipment. But the plan would also take the system out of the grasp of congressional committees that jealously protect their turf.

Not that DOT's idea doesn't need scrutiny. An efficient traffic system is critical to the safety of travelers. Government corporations have a mixed record. Amtrak has performed a lot better than the hapless private railroads it supplanted. The U.S. Postal Service, which isn't quite a corporation but not quite a government agency, is hamstrung by its unwieldy management structure. So a lot depends on how the new organization is set up.

A dozen years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration launched a major upgrading of the computers that control airliners in flight. The program is years behind schedule and billions over budget. One problem has been the cumbersome government planning and procurement process, which can't seem to keep pace with technological change. But adequate safety controls are still essential. A tricky balance is required.

This planned reorganization is but one aspect of a major administration attack on the airline industry's woes. It favors allowing foreigners to buy up to 49 percent of domestic airlines, doubling the present limit, in return for greater access for U.S. airlines in their countries. It will take a hard look at provisions in the bankruptcy laws that let failing airlines gain competitive advantages over solvent ones. It is reviewing five decades worth of regulations to see which can safely be discarded.

VTC Many of the airline industry's problems are internal. While the administration promises to aid the industry in selling products and services overseas, protecting weaker airlines from predatory competition and resolving some of the labor-management differences, it has properly denied pleas for all but token tax relief. Much of the financial crunch of the past three years can be blamed on the industry's over-ambitious expansion during the '80s. Now that the economy is improving and air travel picking up, profits are returning. If the government can throw off some of its own shackles, that trend might be accelerated.

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