In 1980, a certain Presidential candidate lambasted his predecessor for not replacing obsolete radar equipment used in air traffic control. Once in office, though, his administration declined to spend billions from the designated trust fund to do so, citing the national debt.
That same President fired more than eleven thousand air traffic controllers, citing a law that forbids government workers to carry out job actions. However appropriate legally, the action sharply reduced the coping capacity of the system at a time when airline deregulation was perilously loading it up. The effect on air traffic control in the form of flight delays, however, was about the same as the strike itself, only longer lasting but received little public notice during the tenure of a popular President. Hiring the headcount and rebuilding performance levels of this country's controllers would take years of on-the-job training. Or worse. Hundreds of near midair collisions (NMACs in government-speak) are documented and investigated every year; thousands more go unreported.
At that time, video games at a local pizza parlor applied more advanced technology than the radars deployed throughout the entire air traffic control system. Brace yourself for this: Not much has changed since. Technology in today's air traffic control hardware is still based on the limitations imposed in the 1950s by vacuum tubes. It's as if the Winchester House were still the most significant landmark in Silicon Valley.
As a consequence, for safety in the sky, the U.S. Government continues to rely on the skill and dedication of employees in radar rooms and control towers.
With hub-and-spoke airline structures, air traffic control, more than ever before, means the crush of real-time and horrendous abuse of the human mind. Mental disintegration in the radar room may still be a routine occupational hazard -- unrecognized, except in cases of rapid-onset, which I have personally witnessed.
Controllers were striking for better pay and working conditions, and the ones who held out for their demands were summarily dismissed. Afterwards, passengers boarding airliners, had they ever thought about it, would have little justification in hoping that those same controllers happened to be the lesser qualified. Can we presume that all the controllers who gave in and stayed were the best at their work -- and were fully contented with their working conditions despite increasing workloads?
Maybe the Government should get out of the air traffic control business altogether. Some people honestly believe that. In the U.S., they point out, there are investor-owned hospitals and utility companies; corporations run water districts; they operate charter schools and toll bridges. Unlike much of the rest of the world, services in the private sector include telephone and telegraph, railroads and rubbish collection, subways and sewers, even postal services and prisons. Space, Inc., by this mentality, may be the "final frontier."
Privatizing is in the air. Why not, then, (you should excuse the expression) in the air?
Municipal airport authorities might franchise private companies as control tower concessionaires, charging take-off and landing fees for their services. The "Victor airways" and "jet routes" would be parcelled out and licensed like the frequencies for commercial broadcast media. Regional radar rooms would become franchised business centers, authorized to levy tariffs: so much per passenger-mile for enroute protection. Terms are two-ten, net thirty on approved credit.
Sarcasm Alert: Paid for under a multibillion-dollar Federal "subsidy," America's air traffic control system has failed to keep pace. As part of the private sector, ATC could hardly do worse than what we have now. Private enterprise would surely pony up the requisite capital to modernize. Seamless interoperability, by the way, in the de-nationalized airway system might simply appropriate the policies of the myriad telephone companies now divested, along with diversity in pricing plans advertised on television. The cost of flying might actually go down.
Private companies in air traffic control face exposure to withering liabilities. One fatal incident attributable to an ATC company can wipe out many years of accumulated profits or result in bankruptcy. Indemnification would impose a serious cash drain.
Without a credible opportunity for year-over-year revenue growth, investors won't see capital gains and must be attracted by dividends, which are direct cash drains indistinguishable from horrendous taxes. Think about your own investment criteria. Given alternatives in a full range of industries, why would you put your capital at risk in an ATC company?
Key employees must have job security more than stock-options and profit-sharing plans. Controllers must be individually motivated to high levels of performance with an emphasis on safety not volume. Cutting corners can be lethal. Even self-paced government employees are known to support risky procedures for expediting traffic flow: "Taxi into position and hold," for example, has occasionally proven to be fatally flawed.
Thus, a pure commercial model must seem unlikely, even to the most devout free-enterprise enthusiast. For one thing, sufficient sources of revenue would probably not be realizable from airline fares and fuel taxes. Oh right, but it is surely in the interests of cities and commercial centers to offer efficient and safe transportation systems. Let local taxing authorities pick up part of the tab. Metropolitan areas might compete with each other for air traffic, same as for major league sports franchises. Aviation safety, however, is hardly a local issue. ATC in some cities would be more efficient than others; some regions would be safer than others; some airports might not be served at all.
Throughout the world, truth be known, public transportation systems -- railways, highways, airways -- all are subsidized by national governments. Transportation, apparently, enjoys the status of a "common good."
Government's role is best regulatory, not operational -- setting standards, overseeing matters of public safety. Face it: there is no profit incentive for that. Federal officials must assure the soundness of maintenance, for example, not do repairs. Better still, inspect inspectors, certify the excellence of training, not teach.
Capital formation, return on investment, market share -- these are hardly the natural instruments of management for public safety. To be sure, increasing margins generally result from reductions in labor intensity; however, operational improvements through automation must assert safety in the sky above productivity on the ground. Then, too, private companies are unable to invoke peremptory legalisms and so must deal with organized labor as a practical reality.
Safety generally requires mandates under the force of law. Private companies would have a hard time pulling that off. For example, hundreds of thousands of private pilots campaigned for decades against the FAA's requirement to install even primitive transponders in their Cessnas and Pipers. Cost was a factor, but by no means the only one. If the track-while-scan technology on the ground would be overwhelmed by additional data, goes the argument, what's the use? Meanwhile, aircraft owners preferred to spend their money on cockpit gadgets that support full-featured navigation like LORAN or, later on, GPS -- both operated from common governmental resources, by the way. The transponder, so far as the pilot can tell, merely flashes a panel light.
Setting aside all human considerations, if the damage settlements and the fees paid to lawyers resulting from just one Cerritos were spent instead to buy transponders for private aircraft -- as a gift! -- the entire General Aviation fleet would have been properly equipped long ago, with money left over to pay for ground-based computers capable of processing the extra data in real-time. If that idea collides with your mind at an oblique angle, remember "modernization of the airways" is still a cruel joke, even though there are billions in passenger fees accumulated in the "aviation trust fund" to cover the cost.
Of course, the nation's commercial air carriers collectively oppose governmental mandates that impact the bottom line, reacting as with antibodies against economic diseases. They apply their not inconsiderable political clout to delay or defeat anything that is perceived to put their highly-subsidized industry at a disadvantage in competition with other transportation modes.
Yet, nobody is safe unless everybody is protected. So long as there are aircraft in the sky squawking 1200, effective control is not possible. So long as ground-based collision avoidance depends utterly upon human attentiveness and judgment, collisions in the sky are inevitable.
Whatever the economic philosophy of a given passenger, he or she, with boarding pass in hand, might become persuaded to concede that safety is indeed a "common good."
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