If you’re a regular reader of the Aviation Policy Blog (and I hope you are; the best way to keep up to date is to subscribe to my feed), you’re well aware of how aviation is playing out in the 2008 election (or the extent to which it isn’t). In today’s Wall Street Journal, “Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney takes on what the next president will need to do. I commend this read to you. First, the stakes of inaction on aviation issues:
Last year, nearly one-quarter of all U.S. airline flights were delayed, and the average delay was 55 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Passengers lost 112 million hours of time spent waiting. . . . And that doesn’t count the delay already baked into airline schedules. On average, U.S. airline flights were scheduled 15 minutes longer in 2006 than in 1997, based on the same distances. . . . Delays cost airlines $8.1 billion in direct operating costs in 2007, mostly burning extra fuel and paying crews for the extra time. That’s more than the U.S. industry has ever earned in a year. . . . More than 1,600 flights last year sat for longer than three hours waiting to take off, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. More than 4.4 million bags were mishandled. Complaints about airline service were up 65% last year.
McCartney outlines several steps that the next president can take. He also underscores the urgency of making these changes now: “The time to fix it is now, when the economic downturn has given the system some slack. This is when it’s easiest to replace, repair and expand.” We didn’t do this during our last downturn, after 9/11, and it hurt badly in 2006-2007. So, what does he recommend?
- Air traffic control modernization. “The current time-table for modernizing air-traffic control covers 20 years, and the history of the effort is filled with delays. What’s needed is a full-court press. He then quotes Marion Blakey on how viable ATC transformation is, but her five years at the helm of the FAA and in charge of NextGen are conveniently glossed over.
- Split the FAA into two agencies. “Many industry watchers would like to see the FAA split into two parts: a safety regulator for airlines, airports and air-traffic controllers, and a separate air-traffic-control system run in a business-like manner by a not-for-profit entity, not government.” That includes this industry-watcher. “One major reason to split the FAA is that the agency today is both the safety regulator and the operator,” McCartney continues. “In air-traffic control, the FAA regulates itself, leading to potential conflicts of interest.” He cites Dorothy Robyn’s excellent paper this summer for the Brookings Institution’s excellent Hamilton Project. He also quotes former Continental chairman Gordon Bethune, who carries the flag for ATC privatization/commercialization: “Bethune . . . hopes the new president will push for ‘a quasi-government agency to build and operate a modern air-traffic-control system.’ Bond financing could be used for new equipment instead of asking Congress to pay for it year by year.”
- Other issues. McCartney urges measures to make TSA screening less invasive and troublesome; passenger-bill-of-rights-type measures, a “better plan” to ease congestion at New York-area airports, “a Transportation Secretary with muscle to fix the problem, not prolong it,” and incentives for greener, cleaner aerospace R&D.
To McCartney’s memo, I would add the following items:
- A new FAA administrator, hired from outside the agency, with respect from industry and labor. Labor-management relations at the agency are beyond toxic, and promoting current management (as Bush did when he nominated Robert Sturgell) is only going to inflame the situation. To the extent that Barack Obama has engaged in aviation issues, he has been entirely aligned with the air traffic controllers; he needs to demonstrate his independence by picking someone who will command the controllers’ respect and negotiate with them while still defending the prerogatives of the FAA’s “customers”–system users–and taxpayers.
- A commitment to an alternative funding structure for the FAA. Ticket and fuel taxes are not enough. The FAA needs a user fee system. This will align use of the system with the cost of providing ATC services. The current administration has admirably pushed for user fees; perhaps, in an environment less rabidly partisan than that existing between Congress and the White House, we can see rapprochement on this crucial priority.
Commentators rightly say that thirty years out, we’re not going backward on airline deregulation. But will the next president take crucial steps in pursuing “Deregulation 2.0,” the critical public-sector overhaul that will make our aviation system more competitive, productive, and efficient for decades into the future? If the next president takes on established interests and pursues these reforms, future generations of fliers will thank him.