- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000


Efforts to modernize the nation's air traffic control system have not kept pace with the demand for air travel, President Clinton said yesterday in announcing a new organization to oversee the system and reduce flight delays.

Mr. Clinton issued an executive order creating the Air Traffic Organization within the Federal Aviation Administration. While the step doesn't answer calls from some in the airline industry to privatize the air traffic control system, it does move to make it operate more like a business.

Rapid growth in air travel is simply racing ahead of the limits of the FAA's aging infrastructure, Mr. Clinton said. Flight delays have increased by more than 58 percent in the past five years, cancellations by 68 percent, he said.

"It's like putting a Ferrari engine into a dump truck body and still expecting it to win races," Mr. Clinton said. "We need to put the Ferrari engine of FAA excellence into a new, more streamlined, more efficient body."

The Air Traffic Organization will be a performance-based organization, and like a business, it will be led by a chief operating officer, who will be given financial incentives to ease aviation gridlock.

Its mission is to increase the efficiency of a system that guides the flights of 670 million airplane passengers a year a number that is expected to top 1 billion within a decade, according to FAA estimates.

"If the air traffic control system meets its targets, there would be a bonus for the person who runs the organization just as there would be in private business," said Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the FAA.

Mr. Clinton also appointed five business and labor leaders from outside the aviation industry to serve as a board of directors for the new organization.

The members of this group are: Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a former Republican senator from Kansas; John Cullinane, a computer software businessman; Leon Lynch, international vice president for human affairs for the United Steelworkers of America; Sharon Patrick, president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.; and John Snow, chairman of CSX Corp.

Mr. Clinton also directed the FAA and Transportation Department to review barriers in current law and regulations to using the air traffic control system more efficiently. For instance, airlines could be charged more to land at airports during peak hours.

The president also called on Congress to reform the way the system is financed moving it from a system supported by passenger taxes to one financed by user fees.

Currently, passengers pay an excise tax when they buy their airline tickets, which helps the FAA run the air traffic control system. The president called for airlines to pay user fees that would more directly reflect the cost of providing the service.

Noting that he will be flying commercially after he gives up Air Force One in January, Mr. Clinton said: "I will try to wait patiently in those lines next year for Congress to do its part."

How to improve the air traffic control system's ability to handle rising traffic has been discussed for the past several years.

In 1994, then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena suggested that air traffic control operations be shifted into a quasigovernmental corporation like the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Postal Service. Some Republican lawmakers have even talked about a fully private air traffic control business, not just a government corporation, but the idea was never approved by Congress.

In 1997, the 21-member National Civil Aviation Review Commission said the government should restructure the FAA with a division handling day-to-day management of airline traffic. The commission also suggested earmarking user fees from airlines to allow the FAA to avoid the annual budget process on Capitol Hill.

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