FAA better make the most of Clinton-created division

The nation’s air traffic system has just received what could be its last, best chance for survival as a government agency. The system better make the best of the opportunity.

A new organization within the Federal Aviation Administration will try to reduce flight delays. President Bill Clinton said Thursday that the division will operate much like a business in overseeing the traffic control system.

The new Air Traffic Organization will be headed by a chief officer, who will receive financial incentives for improving performance. A board of directors, composed of business and labor leaders from outside the aviation industry, will oversee the agency.

With both the holiday travel season and the end of his administration looming, Clinton had obvious incentives to act quickly. His move, though, appears to have potential for pushing the air traffic system toward better performance. Almost any improvement, of course, would be welcome, given the rise in delays faced by passengers across the country.

The reform falls short of the privatization urged by some Republican members of Congress and the airline industry. There is good reason, though, to try every option short of privatization. With safety the paramount concern, public operation of air traffic control ought to remain the preferred option. After all, the nation’s safety record is excellent.

As poor as the FAA’s performance sometimes is, moreover, a substantial share of the blame for air traffic difficulties lies with the air carriers, not the federal government or the hard-working air traffic controllers. For competitive reasons, airlines have massively overscheduled their flights at key airport hubs and in the most desirable time periods. Even the consumers most annoyed by the delays would be reluctant to let airlines call the shots on how to establish a private air traffic system. The results would likely be every bit as neglectful as the airlines’ you-are-stuck-with-us attitude toward their passengers.

Privatization, already established in more than 15 nations, should remain an option, however. Indeed, labor unions and the FAA ought to be reminded of that possibility to motivate them to work together rather than engage in futile, disruptive disputes.

President Clinton’s appointments to the new board of directors include a former Republican senator, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, and John Snow, the chairman of the CSX Corp. If they can bring a more business-like attitude, passengers may see fewer delays caused by the air traffic system.

Next year’s Congress could help, too, by letting the FAA charge airlines directly for each flight takeoff and landing, rather than imposing a tax on passengers’ tickets as is done now to support the air traffic system. There also should be the authority to charge airlines higher rates at peak travel times and at the most crowded airports. Discounted charges for larger jets might discourage the airlines from their increasing reliance on 50-seat planes, which have crowded the skies as well as contributing to the need for new runways on the ground.

Airlines, controllers and passengers rely on one another. Passengers will know soon enough if the system is improving or whether it must undergo even more drastic changes.

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