Thursday, May 08, 2008

One More Time at the NYTimes

Matthew Wald has another article in The New York Times today.

A Long List of Big Issues for F.A.A.

A word of caution while we’re here. It is indeed a long list but Mr. Wald doesn’t get much space to discuss it. I -- on the other hand -- can use all the space I want. Or as much as I can get you to read anyway.

Mr. Wald starts out with four questions. I’ve got answers. Well, at least opinions.

”How should it rebuild its air traffic control system and its controller work force, both of which are aging and stressed? “

Building both at the same time will be virtually impossible for an organization that hasn’t done either one correctly -- much less planned so poorly that both need to be done at the same time. Again, this retirement surge was predictable. Not only did the FAA fail to effectively plan for it, they exacerbated the problem with their Imposed Work Rules. Again, it demonstrates an unbelievable level of incompetence on the part of the Bush Administration.

The technology we have works and the technology proposed is considered “high risk.” The FAA should bite the bullet, stabilize the system with the existing technology and concentrate on rebuilding its workforce. It should do so by following the model it used after the PATCO strike in 1981. Scrap the current training system, screen the masses at its academy in Oklahoma City ruthlessly and give the facilities trainees that have a good chance of becoming controllers.

Failure to make the hard decisions now will not make the situation any better. Better technology won’t help if there is no one to use it. It’s an ugly decision to make but it is really a no-brainer.

”How should it set fees for airlines and others using the air traffic system? “

It’s the wrong question. Forget “fees” and start thinking taxes. Fees are for privatization. The FAA is about one disaster away from having to limit access to the National Airspace System. “Fees” would just make that decision even harder by making it costlier.

”How should it ration scarce landing slots at New York area airports to prevent national gridlock? “

It’s simple. Follow the existing law. We’ve already wasted untold amounts of time wringing our hands over the situation only to have implemented the slot restrictions anyway. Get over it. Airports have a finite capacity. Move on.

”And who should run the agency, which has had no permanent administrator since September?“

Somebody that can swing an ax. If anyone thinks that the FAA’s failure is due solely to an Administrator, or lack thereof, they aren’t paying attention. Remember, the current wave of air traffic controller retirements has been inevitable and noticeable since 1981. The failed response to that predictable problem goes far beyond any one Administrator.

When you read the article, take a moment to dwell on this statement from James Burnley, former Secretary of the DOT.

”One way to pay for the system, he said, would be with bonds repaid with air traffic control fees.“

In one of the very first posts I ever made on this blog, I mentioned Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker. If you have read that book, I’m sure you’ve already made the connection. If you haven’t -- one of the great sources of power for Robert Moses was the ability of his public authorities to issue bonds. Those bonds allowed Moses to build bridges that generated tolls that allowed him to sell even more bonds. The catch was in paying off the bonds. If you paid off the bonds, the rationale for the tolls went away. So, within a few years of the bonds maturity, he’d reissue the bonds. The tolls -- and Robert Moses’ power -- stayed in place for years and years.

It’s a fascinating story. One that is well worth knowing before you let somebody put a toll booth on an airspace system that you’ve already paid for. One that you -- the citizens -- already own.

Don Brown
May 8, 2008

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