Cheaper, Better Air Traffic Control
November 28, 2012
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  • As U.S. President Barack Obama and lawmakers scavenge for mutually acceptable spending cuts in order to strike a budget deal by Jan. 1, here’s an easy one: The $10 million a year wasted on overstaffed and unneeded Federal Aviation Administration facilities.

    A Bloomberg News investigation this month found that one- third of FAA-staffed airport towers and radar rooms don’t handle enough traffic to justify round-the-clock operations. They should be closed at night.

    FAA guidelines allow a tower or radar room to be closed if flight volume is less than four landings or takeoffs an hour for five straight hours. At such low-traffic airports — think Ypsilanti, Michigan, or Huntington, West Virginia — pilots can land safely without tower assistance. In an internal FAA survey obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency identified 102 towers and local radar rooms — out of 294 total — that meet the criterion for partial closings yet operate round-the-clock regardless.

    The wasteful staffing has been compounded by an order last year from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood requiring each tower to have at least two controllers on overnight duty. LaHood’s order was a knee-jerk response to reports of sleeping air-traffic controllers. The Bloomberg investigation concluded that 23 of 27 facilities ordered to add a second overnight controller didn’t have enough traffic to justify nighttime operations at all.

    Congressional Protection

    Why such waste? After all, $10 million is still real money, and frittering it away hardly breeds confidence in the FAA. Lawmakers of both parties, defending local interests, jobs and unions, have systematically blocked the FAA’s requests to close towers or merge radar rooms. At least 50 U.S. airports each handled more than 2,000 airline flights in 2010 without any tower at all.

    Worse, the zombie towers divert resources from the FAA’s plans for a $42 billion overhaul of U.S. air-traffic control that would switch from the current radar-based system to a satellite-controlled one known as NextGen. That spending is already imperiled by last year’s sequestration agreement — the spending cut component of the so-called fiscal cliff — under which the FAA’s $15.9 billion budget would be cut by $1 billion next year unless Congress and the Obama administration reach a deal to avoid it.

    Legislation passed in February creates the air-traffic equivalent of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, a process for designating which facilities should be closed, merged or relocated without political interference. But the legislation, which requires the assent of both industry and labor, shows no sign of achieving its goal anytime soon.

    In the long term, lawmakers should consider broader changes. One good place to look for ideas is the successful private-public air-traffic systems in Australia, Canada and the U.K. NATS Holdings Ltd., which operates at 15 airports in the U.K. and at Gibraltar, is 49 percent government-owned, with stakes held by a consortium of U.K. airlines, employees and a private airport operator. Over the past decade, it has consolidated resources based on need and efficiency. By setting local politics aside, the system has even managed to post profits. That may be too much to expect for the vastly larger FAA. But the agency can certainly do better than to throw money away.

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