Politicians, Not Airlines, Are Delaying Your Flights

Politicians, Not Airlines, Are Delaying Your Flights
Travelers wait at the departure area check-in at the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on June 28, 2023. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)
Thomas McArdle

Like a DC-10 chasing its own tail, the deregulation of air travel is never able to progress nearly as far as it should, despite staggering successes, because politicians who want to control passengers’ lives are so good at blaming the airlines for the government’s failures.

At the beginning of the year, the Biden administration waged a war of words against Southwest Airlines after obsolete technology for tracking and scheduling flight crews led to the carrier canceling thousands of departures in the face of bad weather. Southwest “failed its customers, point blank,” Biden’s media mouthpiece claimed, and promised that “the Department of Transportation will hold them accountable to their commitments to make their customers whole.”

About a week later, one fine day in mid-January, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) system, which reports key flight information to pilots, became inoperative due to corrupt data, causing a thousand domestic flights to be canceled and many thousands more to be delayed. No one expected that the Department of Transportation (DOT) might hold itself responsible for failing its “customers.”

That word is key. In truth, the DOT and its FAA have no “customers,” any more than congressmen, senators, or the president do. You can’t take your business elsewhere; your taxes are non-negotiable. Your vote may translate into some leverage, but only if the politician’s reelection is in jeopardy and the issue you care about is in play with enough voters that he or she is vulnerable at the next election.

The July 4th weekend is expected to break records for travel this year. But the flight delays and safety issues stemming from outdated technology that are going to drive passengers to exasperation are unlikely to set in motion much modernization or increased efficiency. Because the victims aren’t customers of those causing the problems. And those causing the problems, aided by the establishment media, will make sure you blame the airlines.

We don’t even really know the details of the NOTAM breakdown in January, though we are assured by the FAA that it was the fault not of a federal employee but of a blundering outside contractor who inadvertently deleted files. The bipartisan response to that governmental failure can be expected to be less effective than your town council’s typical reaction to one-too-many car accidents on a neighborhood street—bring the speed limit down by 10 miles per hour, or maybe install flashing lights around a stop sign, then congratulate themselves.

An FAA task force will be established by new law, enacted in June, to recommend improvements to NOTAM, and there will be updates to NOTAM’s computer system. The law’s target date for revamping NOTAM is over a year away.

It’s the usual run-in-place Washington hamster wheel that can be depended on to accomplish exactly nothing. The actual solution is to make the FAA truly accountable. And that means replacing the FAA with an entity that really will have customers.

Lest you think this a fringe notion, consider the analysis of Cliff Winston, senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, whose book “Revitalizing a Nation: Competition and Innovation in the US Transportation System” is set to be published by Brookings in December. Winston points out that, thanks to deregulation, “inflation-adjusted airfares were 60 percent lower in 2020 than in 1980. Indeed, flying is no longer a luxury. It’s cheap enough to allow most Americans to fly—by 2020, 87 percent of the U.S. population had taken a commercial airline trip. And low fares have cost us nothing in terms of safety: no major airline has been involved in an accident in the United States since 2009.”

Winston recommends going further by privatizing airports, because big, spread-out cities like Atlanta, Denver, and Las Vegas shouldn’t offer just one choice of where people can take off; a single airport often also means there will be one or few airlines available for whatever a passenger’s destination might be.

His book, with Washington State University transportation economist Jia Yan as co-author, will, according to pre-publication materials, be making the broad argument that the culprit in America’s entire flawed transportation system is big government spending “without considering efficient policies to optimize the system’s performance that could reduce public spending and investment.” President Joe Biden’s 2021 trillion-dollar infrastructure act demonstrates that “large government expenditures continue to be prioritized as the primary way to improve transportation,” according to the authors.

Their alternative is deregulation in all forms of travel, from private taxi services like Uber given full freedoms, to experimenting with privatized highways in a world of “open skies airline pricing” and American and foreign airlines unchained to serve each other’s routes, “which could spur global deregulation that would facilitate seamless international air travel.”

Brookings sees the writing on the wall, as does even the air traffic controllers’ union, which long opposed privatization of the FAA.

Amazingly, it is our friends north of the border, so often opponents of liberty, who are showing us the way. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union years ago softened its anti-privatization position, its president in 2017 conceding that “moving operations out of federal control would ensure more stable funding” and “could deliver results similar to those we have seen in Canada, where Nav Canada has proved itself to be a safe and innovative air navigation service provider over the past two decades.”

The nonprofit Nav Canada, separate from the Canadian government, is self-supporting through charging its patrons fees, and is not state-subsidized. It is the product of Canada’s 1996 air traffic privatization, which replaced a ticket tax to the government with direct charges to aircraft operators for services. Airlines are charged for flying over Canada and using Canadian airports. And even though Nav Canada is a monopoly its charges to its customer have actually lagged behind inflation. Plus, Nav Canada is among the safest 10 percent air traffic control systems in the world.

Conservatives have long liked to say that government should limit itself to defending the country and maintaining the roads; but now, even the Brookings Institution is suggesting that roads be excluded. If the door is opened to privatize the fastest travel available to consumers, there is no telling in what other realms the customer-friendly efficiency of business could replace the state’s corruption and waste.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Thomas McArdle was a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush and writes for IssuesInsights.com
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