In effect, what Democrats said Friday was that in any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it’s even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It’s worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.That is, if there really was any pain.
The managers of our massive federal bureaucracy have not given up on trying to convince Americans that even the slightest of spending cuts will have a devastating impact on the lives of its citizens. Furloughs for air traffic controllers kicked in this weekend, and Federal Aviation Administration heads warned Friday that air travelers will see flights delayed for hours.The Washington Monument has been closed for going on two years now, and the Republic somehow carries on. Perhaps, little by little, people will come to the realization that much of what the political class tells us is Necessary and Proper is something that we can get along without, or do better without sending the money through Washington first.
Take the air traffic control system. Please.
Air traffic control—in the United States, Europe and other advanced countries—is on the verge of a paradigm shift that promises to at least double the capacity of the skies without expanding the workforce, i.e. doubling productivity. The NextGen program in the United States is implementing key technology and procedural building blocks for this transition, but the program is at risk of becoming merely an upgrade of hardware and software, rather than redesigning the airspace and consolidating its far-flung, labor-intensive facilities. Without these additional changes, the end result will be a far more costly, albeit higher-tech, system.I've learned to be suspicious of any statement that includes the expression "paradigm shift" but if I understand the supporting information correctly, information technologies are powerful enough to keep track of aircraft in motion anywhere in Euclidean 3-space, freeing airliners from having to proceed as if along railroad tracks in the sky, the way it works these days. And why shouldn't air traffic control be as centralized as it is with the railroads, where a dispatcher at a desk in Omaha can delay freight in Illinois or in California?
Three key enablers of the paradigm shift are performance-based navigation, far more precise surveillance of aircraft positions, and digital communications instead of voice. Together, these will make it possible to manage air traffic from anywhere to anywhere. A controller located in Miami will be able to manage traffic in Seattle, for example. Thanks to these changes, the entire airspace can be reconfigured, expanding its capacity to handle two or three times as many aircraft safely.
This reconfigured airspace, in turn, should drive the reconfiguration of staffed facilities. ATC facilities will no longer need to be located directly beneath the airspace they manage. And that means most of the 187 Centers and TRACONs, many of which are aging and in need of major refurbishment if kept in service, can and should be shut down. They can be replaced by a much smaller number of facilities, many of which can be designed from the outset to function in the from-anywhere-to-anywhere paradigm.
The article hints at, but does not fully explore, the possibility of freeing the air-traffic control system from control by the political class, or the rent-seekers.
Congress should develop a process to permit large-scale consolidation to proceed without micro- management, as it has done for needed but difficult military base closing and consolidation. It needs to allow the Air Traffic Organization to make use of new funding options, such as issuing revenue bonds, to finance the facility consolidation program. And it needs to permit the ATO to retain the proceeds from selling the land and buildings associated with facilities that will be closed, to help fund the development of the new facilities.I understand the logic of having to provide paths and traffic control for military aircraft. But many of the benefits of a well-functioning air traffic control system accrue to the air carriers, and to air travellers. Why not require those who receive the benefit to bear the burden, perhaps with provisions for paths assigned Military Authorization Identification Numbers when Air Force One, or a relief shipment of supplies to a disaster area, or Seal Team Six or a test flight out of Area 51 are in the air. Private benefits, private costs, no more rents to generate, seek, and dissipate.
If Congress cannot accomplish those admittedly difficult tasks in the near future, the alternative is to delegate these responsibilities to a revamped ATO that would be insulated from both congressional micro-management and federal budget constraints. This would involve separating the ATO from the FAA, enabling it to charge aircraft operators for its services (like airports and other utilities) and use the revenue stream to back ATO revenue bonds. The FAA would regulate the reformed ATO for safety, at arm’s length. This model has been used successfully overseas, including in Australia, Canada, Germany and the U.K., each of whose self-supporting air navigation service providers has successfully consolidated its equivalent of Centers and TRACONs along the lines proposed in this study.