Who Should Control Air Traffic Control?

When Vice-President Al Gore talks about the need to reinvent government, nearly everyone cheers. But the political stone wall blocking one of his centerpiece proposals--privatization of the air-traffic-control system--provides a lesson in just how hard it is to turn good intentions into Washington reality.

The Clinton Administration wants to set up a government corporation, like Amtrak, to control traffic on the nation's airways, leaving responsibility for air safety to the Federal Aviation Administration. The new corporation would be financed by fees from airlines and private-plane operators. That would take $7 billion of FAA spending off the federal budget and cut government employment by 38,000. Supporters also hope that semiprivate status would end the procurement and management snafus that have caused monumental cost overruns in the construction of the FAA's Advanced Automation System.

SELLING CHANGE. Administration officials, led by Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pea, have been crisscrossing the country, hawking the idea--with much success. The scheme was endorsed by the industry-labor commission appointed by President Clinton in 1993 to recommend changes to boost U.S. airlines. Air-traffic controllers, weary of miserable labor relations under the FAA, support a change. "We want a say in how our company is run," says Barry Krasner, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., which represents 10,000 workers. Under privatization, "we'd be able to bargain wages instead of just working conditions."

Some opposition comes from general aviation interests, which fear that the airlines' influence over a privatized system would drive up their costs--and perhaps freeze corporate and private planes out of popular airports. "If they start charging pilots for everything, they're going to kill the industry," grumbles Joseph M. Danoff of Gallup, N.M., owner of a four-seat Cessna.

But the real culprit delaying privatization is Congress, which won't surrender control over the operation. ATC reform may represent a way to overcome the bureaucratic impediments that have prevented the FAA from using cutting-edge technology to improve economic efficiency--a central theme of the reinventing-government effort. Key legislators, however, won't even contemplate it. Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), aviation subcommittee Chairman Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), and House Public Works & Transportation Committee Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) have all but ruled out action on the proposal, which has yet to find a sponsor.

"They want to make this a showcase example of reinventing government," sniffs one House staffer. "But it creates problems in and of itself." A major difficulty, from Capitol Hill's viewpoint, is that a self-financing corporation would not be subject to lawmakers' jealously guarded control of its annual budget.

Congress admits there are serious problems with ATC. House aviation subcommittee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) is threatening to cancel the Advanced Automation System's contract with a Loral Corp. unit (formerly IBM Federal Systems Co.) and start over. The cost, projected in 1982 at $2 billion, has zoomed to $7 billion. The first installation, planned for 1992, is at least six years away. Meanwhile, the FAA is using technology that, in some cases, dates to the 1940s to deal with 7 million commercial flights carrying more than 475 million passengers a year. Revolving-door management--five FAA administrators in the last 10 years--and ponderous procurement rules keep the agency behind the times.

MIXED RECORD. Turning the job over to a corporation won't cure all that ails the system. The record of such enterprises is mixed, with such relative successes as the Tennessee Valley Authority offset by such dismal failures as the U.S. Postal Service. Yet a structural shakeup seems almost sure to improve on the FAA's record. Fears that the airlines would push a semiprivate ATC corporation to cut corners should be allayed by the fact that the government would still regulate such issues as the spacing of takeoffs and landings. Meanwhile, freeing the control system of the dead hand of federal personnel and procurement rules could yield gains in efficiency.

Congress should be pushed to try privatization. The White House has a crowded legislative agenda, and such politically hot issues as health-care reform and crime take priority. But if Bill Clinton really believes in reinventing government, he should spend a few moments working for an initiative whose only serious opposition comes from the vested interests on the Hill.

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