March 30, 2011

PRIORITIES: Obama issues veto threat over union measure in FAA bill.

UPDATE: A reader emails: So let’s look at how one of those union employees performed recently. “Seriously, a unionized air traffic controller literally asleep in the tower at the main airport for the federal capitol? And now the president threatens to veto a bill that slightly curtails the power of the union protecting that guy? Remember these ATC union types say they’re all about safety but c’mon. The campaign ad writes itself.” Heh.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Another reader responds:

Just a quick correction to an update from a reader that you published. As an update to Obama issues veto threat over union measure in FAA bill. on March 30, you published a link from a reader regarding the supervisor (not air traffic controller) that fell asleep on the mid shift at DCA. Supervisors are not union members, at least not at the FAA. If you want to see what union controllers are doing, might I recommend http://www.natca.org/ULWSiteResources/natcaweb/Resources/file/Conferences/2011ArchieLeaguebooklet.pdf ?

It’s easy to demonize people without knowing the underlying facts. For Federal air traffic controllers, our pay scales were cut 30% in 2006. No such cut was enacted for FAA management (or any other FAA employees, for that matter.) When you see someone in Congress (or air traffic’s good friend, Robert Poole) point at the outrageous level of compensation received by controllers, you can be virtually assured that the salary they are using for comparison is that of a supervisor, not a controller. It does pay well, but not nearly as well as management, and that pay comes at a substantial physical and mental cost.

The FAA Reauthorization Bill would allow us to have a concrete budget for maintenance, staffing, and technological improvements. We’ve been working under a series of continuing resolutions for several years now. Parts of the system are to the point where just treading water is becoming difficult to impossible. For example, our Runway Incursion Device (RID) system is now several years past the end of its service life. (It provides a visual and aural warning regarding a closed or occupied runway.) We have been advised that replacement parts are no longer available, so when it breaks, it will stay broken. The deployment schedule for its replacement is based on getting an actual authorization bill passed, not the multi-year series of continuing resolutions we’ve seen. We’ve got efficiency and safety improvements pending for the air traffic system that will save us all billions of dollars as consumers. Yes, it may cost us some actual money as taxpayers, but the resulting savings for us as consumers will be several times greater. If we could get our overlords in Congress to stop using FAA Reauthorization as a vehicle for pork or political grandstanding, we might be able to enact some of the improvements that are currently in a holding pattern. Instead, we’ll probably see these improvements continue to be held hostage to whatever “flavor of the month” the Dems and Repubs think will score them the most brownie points with their respective bases.

When politics makes the air traffic system less efficient than it can be, we all end up paying for it in higher ticket prices and cost of goods. (If I’ve got a line of 6 air carriers at a runway and have to delay the first one for a minute, that’s actually 6 minutes of fuel, crew costs, engine life, value of time for 900 people, etc. that just got added to the cost of the commercial aviation system.)

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?

If you chose to publish any portion of this, please do not include my name or contact information. Thanks!

Well, Canada has privatized air traffic control. But I suppose we can’t expect to become as hardcore free-market as them.