Some pilots resent air traffic controllers. Up there in the wild blue, striving to be free as the proverbial bird, they bristle at any earthbound radar jockey directing them where to fly, how high or low.
I’m not one of those pilots. I figure if a controller directs me to turn left heading 140 degrees or descend to 8,000 feet for no apparent reason, there must be some logic behind it.
That said, I can’t find much logic in the notion of transferring management of the nation’s skyways from the Federal Aviation Administration to some nebulous, nonprofit corporation, as Congressional Republicans are proposing. It’s the timing of their bill I find most curious.
They complain that federal government itself is the problem. Replace all those slothful FAA civil servants with private sector innovators, ditch all those job-killing regulations, then – stand back, Orville and Wilbur! – watch the eagle soar! Yet those who would essentially gut the FAA do so amid what is among the most ambitious overhauls in its history.
The agency is seven years into a 10-year, multi-billion-dollar modernization. Air traffic control is transitioning from an aging patchwork of radars and electronic navigational aids that is expensive to maintain, to a more accurate, dependable and comprehensive management system largely reliant on satellites.
Once in place, controllers will be able to safely reduce minimum separation between aircraft. Commercial jets will be able to depart with fewer “gate holds,” and fly from Point A to B with fewer fuel-guzzling, time-consuming deviations.
Virtually all aircraft operating inside U.S. controlled airspace will be required by January 2020 to have on board special Automated Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transmitters designed to accommodate this change. Additionally, many planes, even little ones like mine, will have ADS-B monitors allowing pilots who are flying through clouds or at night to visualize what ground controllers see on their screens – dangerous weather ahead, potentially hazardous terrain, and other aircraft on potential collision courses with ours. The skies, in other words, will become safer.
All of which begs the question: With these federally-mandated, game-changing improvements just over the horizon, why effectively ground the agency now?
Let us assume it’s not about tried-and-true, old-fashioned GOP cronyism. Rather, let’s say it’s simply about exercising the standard conservative bent that federal government is always the bad guy. Fair enough. Then let’s privatize Congress. After all, surveys have found increasingly that most Americans hate federally elected lawmakers more than they do cockroaches and colonoscopies.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no apologist for the FAA. While I find that most individual air traffic controllers are highly competent and do a fine job helping to keep my airplane from scraping paint with others, there’s little denying that the organization they work for has been plodding and bureaucratic. But government agencies typically function with greater transparency, and thus more accountability, than your average corporation or nonprofit – an important consideration for taxpayers who want to know into whose pockets their tax dollars are flowing.
If you’re a pilot, you always want to know as much as you can about the conditions ahead before attempting to get there. Disregard the known for the unknown, and you may not get there at all. And that’s what this proposal pending before Congress is all about – trading the functions of an albeit imperfect government agency for who-knows-what.
History has shown that private business is not always the answer. Remember when the economy crashed and burned in 2008, courtesy of a deregulated banking industry and unscrupulous lenders?
We’re still digging out from that smoking crater.
DAVID FREED IS A PILOT, NOVELIST AND FORMER REPORTER FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. HE CAN BE CONTACTED AT DAVID-FREED.COM.