Making the Skies Friendlier

May 16, 1994

Just because the White House plan to remove the air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration was dead on arrival at Capitol Hill is no reason to bury it. It is not a perfect solution to an increasingly serious problem. But it's a start, and that's more than previous administrations have achieved in the past decade.

The safety of travelers flying at 30,000 feet and 600 mph is not ensured by a rickety technology decades out of date. The FAA has conspicuously failed to keep up with technical advances that are now possible and necessary. A succession of bureaucratic Band-Aids has failed. Almost everyone in the industry agrees major surgery is called for.

Everyone but the congressional sachems whose control over the federal agency would be diminished, that is. And the private pilots who fear their interests would not be protected without the intercession of friendly legislators. So the proposal advanced by Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to hand air control over to a government corporation didn't even get away from the departure gate.

Flying over the U.S. is as safe as it is anywhere. But travelers' safety is protected by traffic control procedures that keep aircraft farther apart than they would need to be if the controllers had the sophisticated equipment other nations already employ. That raises airlines' costs. Much of the electronic equipment on which the controllers depend is 30 years old -- several generations in technological terms. Some devices still use vacuum tubes -- the electronic equivalent of a Model T.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the modernization of the traffic control system is hobbled by the red tape of government procurement regulations. It takes five years on average to acquire new equipment. One improvement was finally installed 10 years after it was ordered -- and was already obsolete. Turn air traffic control over to a government corporation -- not-for-profit but otherwise run like a private business -- and the system will become efficient, goes the argument.

Well, it's not quite that simple. Another reason the traffic control system is lagging is the inability of private contractors to deliver the goods on time or within budget. So emulating private business is not a cure-all. Still, it is clear that some structural changes are needed. Air travelers can't long depend on a system that directs jumbo jets through the skies with horse-and-buggy equipment.

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