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On FAA Budgeting Matters

This is one of those times I’ll wander away from guns and into my sort of side-interest in aviation. Someone e-mails Instapundit in regards to an FAA bill:

There is also an automatic assumption that “privatizing” air traffic will somehow always be more cost effective than what we are already doing. It’s an article of faith, much like Socialists/Communists always seem to think that their system will work (despite a century of mass graves, economic failure, and oppression) if only the right people were running things. The world already has a wide variety of air traffic control systems in use. There are public, private, and public/private air traffic systems all around the world. The US system has the lowest cost per operation in the developed world. We also have the safest system, while running more traffic than the rest of the world combined. Rather than automatically demonizing people that are trying to improve what is already the safest, busiest, and most cost-effective air traffic system in the world, I’d ask your readers to find the working business model out there in the world that will out-perform what we are doing now. Not just an automatic assumption that a private enterprise just has to be more efficient, but a system in use somewhere else. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am from Missouri on this. Show me. Or should we just assume that it will be more efficient if the right people are running it?

Glenn notes that Canada has a private ATC system, and I believe Eurocontrol is a private consortium as well. I’m not well familiar with how these systems operate, but I suspect there’s still a very high degree of public control.

One fear I would have of privatized air traffic control would be that the large scheduled carriers would dominate any consortium. Those large carriers would have no incentive to allow general aviation or even smaller scheduled or non-scheduled carriers to use their system at anything close to a reasonable price. A completely private system would essentially be handing a public resource, namely the skies, over to private interests who have bad incentives to monopolize the resource as much as possible.

Typically when we do things like this, such as for rights-of-ways for wires and pipes, we regulate them as public utilities. This kind of regulated market is not really a free market in any recognizable sense, and given that, it’s hard to see the case for privatization from a free market perspective.

4 Responses to “On FAA Budgeting Matters”

  1. ATC is very similar to other infrastructure like roads and utilities. The Constitution lets the Federal Government build and maintain “post roads.” There’s a good reason for this. While the founders certainly didn’t oppose private infrastructure (many were involved with private toll road and canal projects), they also saw the need for public involvement to ensure that all areas were serviced with basic connectivity and to ensure that essentially public right-of-ways were not monopolized.

    I wouldn’t have a huge problem with letting private companies handle ATC for limited corridors (similar to letting a private company operate a toll road) but there is definitely a public role to be played.

  2. Sebastian says:

    I don’t know much about how the federal government’s power to build and maintain post roads is interpreted, but the federal highways program was based on Congress’ military powers, as far as I recall.

  3. Ian Argent says:

    Weird, since the post roads clause would cover it directly. I blame Ike.

  4. Sam Gordon says:

    I am a controller at Indy Center. NAVCANADA and EUROCONTROL are in and out of bankruptcy. NAVC was an its third or fourth a few years back. EUROC just shuts down the airspace when they don’t have the money for lights or payroll. We have more aircraft in the CONUS on monday than the rest of the world for the rest of the week combined. Our numbers are way down after Sept. 11, 2001. That’spart of the problem with so many issues (cost, security, delays, etc.), noone has a clue to the magitude of traffic that traverses this nation on a dailey basis.

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