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Last modified: Wednesday, December 19, 2007

U.S. trails other countries in air traffic management

Dec. 19, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The United States lags behind other developed countries in the structure and financing of its air traffic control system. And its failure to adopt reforms may have serious consequences as air travel and air cargo continue to grow and the industry becomes an increasingly important part of the global economy.

Those are among the findings of Managing the Skies: Public Policy, Organization and Financing of Air Navigation, a new book by Clinton V. Oster of Indiana University and John S. Strong of the College of William and Mary. It will be published in January by Ashgate Publishing in the United Kingdom.

Clint Oster

Clinton V. Oster

Print-Quality Photo

"The U.S. is not keeping pace," said Oster, a professor and associate dean in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. "We're not the best practice any more, even though for years we were."

Oster and Strong write that the U.S. falls behind in three key areas:

  • There is a disconnect between the cost drivers of the system and the ways in which revenue is generated.
  • Diffused accountability has led to poor performance and high costs of capital investment programs.
  • A lack of organizational independence has hampered air traffic control.

"Part of the problem is, we're the last major country that runs air traffic control with a government agency," Oster said.

Abandoning air traffic management by government agency -- the Federal Aviation Administration -- doesn't mean privatization, he said. Other nations have developed more effective systems using independent government corporations, public-private partnerships and user cooperatives.

The U.S. also is the last major country that finances air traffic control with taxes -- primarily excise taxes on airline tickets -- rather than user fees. As a result, there is a mismatch between air traffic volumes, which drive costs, and the revenue that flights generate. Business jets, which account for a growing percentage of the air traffic control workload, often carry only a handful of passengers and don't pay their share.

Also, the FAA both operates and regulates air traffic control, a less than ideal situation. And the system is subject to political manipulation aimed at favoring regions of the country or protecting jobs in congressional districts. "What passes as congressional oversight is really micromanagement," Oster said.

Managing the Skies is written in nontechnical language to demystify air traffic management for policy makers and literate lay people. It includes sections on the mature aviation markets of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe and the emerging markets of Russia, China, India, Africa and South America. There is a section on air traffic management in the U.S. and a concluding section on labor issues and the challenges of the future.

Oster and Strong write that the finest hour of air traffic management came after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when controllers managed to divert and land more than 4,500 commercial and private aircraft within three hours without an accident. But instead of using the subsequent months of reduced air traffic to institute reforms, the U.S. returned to business as usual, and pressure on the system is again building.

Oster said he doesn't worry about safety when he flies. "We still do a pretty good job of that, especially in the air," he said. "The bottom line is, we do have a work force of air traffic controllers who are really quite good, and quite dedicated."

But with air travel projected to grow at nearly 5 percent a year -- reaching 1 billion passengers in the U.S. alone by 2015 -- an inefficient system will produce more and longer waits, a loss of confidence in the industry and missed economic opportunities.

"I think it will ultimately hamper aviation and hamper the economy in the U.S., and at some point we're going to have to do better," Oster said.

Reporters may reach Oster by email at