How to Avoid Another FAA Fiasco

Clifford Winston

In the aftermath of last month’s air traffic control fiasco, many people are probably wondering how there could be a budget pinch since travelers pay for air traffic control every time they buy an airline ticket. Current fees amount to a 7.5% ticket tax per flight and $3.90 per flight segment, which generates some $10 billion in annual revenues. Assuming that user fees fund the service, it made no sense that the sequester would affect air traffic control. But that assumption is wrong.

What Americans experienced in April was a classic example of how federal transportation deficits can reduce the nation’s productivity. Millions of man-hours were wasted on planes that were delayed, and hundreds of thousands of travelers postponed or canceled trips that generate work for people at their destinations. Unfortunately, the United States will experience more costly disruptions to its transportation system unless its deficits are curbed by efficient policy reforms or by privatization.

Travelers’ user fees do not bear a close relationship to an aircraft’s contribution to the cost of air traffic control. Why? Because there is no variation in price for airspace congestion that increases traffic control’s workload. The gap between passengers’ user fees and the cost of air traffic control is even greater for unscheduled general aviation (corporate jets and other private flights). General aviation causes unpredictable peaks in demand for airspace, and their preferred altitude approaches create additional complexity and cost for controllers. Overall, revenues from user fees do not cover costs, and the difference is covered by a subsidy from the general federal fund.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been unable to figure out the real costs of air traffic control services and thus has underpriced it since its founding in 1958 as the Federal Aviation Agency. The inadequacy of the ticket tax to cover costs over time has been compounded by the intensity of airline competition that has driven down real airline fares. The costs of air traffic control also have undoubtedly been inflated by the delays and cost overruns attributable to the FAA’s inability to adopt new technology to upgrade and modernize the system. The long-anticipated next generation satellite-based air traffic control system, known as NextGen, is billions over budget and years behind schedule. It may need to be renamed PastGen at the rate of its deployment.

FAA’s involvement with public airports is also characterized by pricing and cost inefficiencies. The charge that an aircraft pays public airports to land—they are not charged to take off—is based on weight and generally does not vary by time of day. But the time at which an airplane lands clearly affects airport congestion and an airport’s capacity to reduce delays. Building new runways has turned into multiyear projects with a price tag in the billions of dollars due to various regulations that can take decades to meet, especially Environmental Protection Agency environmental impact standards.

As part of a federal agency that depends on taxpayer funds to cover a deficit caused by its inefficiencies, air traffic control is at the mercy of Congress. So when the sequester hit, the FAA’s already troubled budget was cut—including funding for air traffic control.

To be sure, the 10% cut in air traffic control was politically efficient from the White House’s perspective, because it delayed more than one-third of all flights and drew the immediate attention of the public and Congress. But FAA’s pricing and operating inefficiencies led to the deficits that rendered air traffic control operations subject to manipulation.

Air traffic control is not an isolated case. Evidence in my forthcoming Journal of Economic Literature paper indicates that the nation’s highways, ports, urban bus and rail transit systems are also characterized by prices that are below costs and by inefficiencies that inflate operating costs, which have resulted in large and growing budget deficits that make those services vulnerable to politics. Cuts in their funding could adversely affect the nation’s productivity by, among other things, increasing commuting and shipping delays.

One way to insulate the nation’s transportation system from the threat of costly political shocks is to efficiently reform its pricing policies so services are financially supported by real, cost-based user charges. Alternatively, the U.S. could follow the lead of countries such as Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand and explore privatizing its transportation services.

All of America’s transportation modes and infrastructure services were initially developed and operated by the private sector. Over the past centuries, they were brought into the public sector by financial crises—some that the government arguably helped create by interfering in the market. Now that the government’s political crises are becoming ever more disruptive, it may be time to return the transportation system back to where it started.