Don’t ground the American economy

Here we go again. With the end of the fiscal year looming, Congress is making noise about shutting down the federal government. While it looks like Washington may figure out a short-term spending bill to keep the government open we know this won’t be the last time the nation faces a potential shutdown.

More than a general annoyance that closes the Smithsonian museums and the National Parks for the public for a few days, the threat of a government shutdown is seriously harmful to the American economy. The clearest example is the nation’s air traffic control network. That’s the federal system that controls over 27,000 flights each day, allowing 2.2 million people to reach their destinations safely.

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For every single Congressional imbroglio about the budget—whether a shutdown or the sequester in 2013—the nation’s air traffic is severely impacted. During the last shutdown some controllers were deemed essential and forced to report to work but they had no one to pay them until the shutdown ended, adding more stress to their already-stressful jobs. Other controllers were furloughed leading to staff shortages and flight delays. (That is, until Congress had to get flights home for the weekend, and then they appropriated money to get all controllers back at their stations.)

All this has real, significant, impacts on the travelling needs of Americans and the future of the system. Any money spent to stop and restart a project is money that cannot go to modernize the system. Any controller not trained during the academy closure is a flight cancelled in the future when a controller gets sick and no replacement is available.

While there appears to be no fix for Congressional dysfunction, there is a way to stop it from affecting air travel: separate air traffic control from government.

Most developed countries have done just that. They’ve created a separate entity, an independent government corporation or a non-profit organization, to operate their air traffic control system. Perhaps the best example is our neighbor to the north. After Canada reformed its air traffic control, the system got safer, new technologies were introduced at faster paces, and it became more cost-efficient. In sharp contrast, modernization in the U.S. progresses on at a snail’s pace, and costs have doubled in the last 20 years.

Besides removing air traffic control from these political fights, separating it from the government has a number of other benefits. Most obviously, the air traffic control provider would be able to focus on its customers, the airlines, and ultimately the travelling public, rather than politics. Investments would be chosen on the basis of their benefits, not whether or not they are approved by Congress. It would allow more flexibility in hiring personnel, making it easier to solve the controller shortage. Importantly, the federal government will still be heavily involved as the safety regulator.

Earlier this year, Congress actually tried to create such a system based on the Canadian model. It would be a federally chartered non-profit (much like the Red Cross or the U.S. Olympic Committee), where airlines, manufacturers, unions, and the federal government all have a stake in its success. The bill passed its committee in the House but did not go any further.

It is likely that next year a similar proposal will be on the table again. The aviation community largely supports it, including almost all the major carriers, the unionized air traffic controllers, as well as the hospitality and travel industries. They all agree that the archaic way the U.S. manages air traffic is not acceptable.

Political squabbling and regular threats of a government shutdown are similarly unacceptable and represent an ongoing crisis for the American economy. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.

Robert Puentes is the President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent non-profit transportation think tank based in Washington DC.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.