December 18, 2000 Chicago Tribune


December 18, 2000

When faced with a problem, step one is to acknowledge it exists. President Clinton--belatedly--gets a top grade here. He has now admitted the Federal Aviation Administration, as currently structured, is incapable of reducing the systemic flight delays plaguing the U.S.

Step two is proposing a solution. Here he flunks because his solution is to give the FAA another wing--the brand new semiautonomous Air Traffic Organization--that will be charged with fixing gridlock in the skies.

The ATO, promised Clinton, will be headed by a chief operating officer who will be given financial incentives to do the job. The theory is that separating the FAA's safety and regulatory duties from the job of running the air traffic system will allow the new ATO to focus solely on the task at hand.

If that were to do the trick, the traveling public would be eternally grateful. But this solution effectively puts another bureaucratic layer between the administrator of the FAA and the air traffic control system. How that will help solve the problem is baffling.

This page has suggested it is time to seriously consider privatizing the air traffic control system. The Clinton administration solution seems to want to have it both ways--keep the control system in a government-run FAA, but try to make it act more like a private business. The bottom line though is more employees will join the 49,000 already employed by the FAA.

The job of running the air traffic system, Clinton said in making this announcement, is a "massive, complex, technology-intensive service business operating within a conventional U.S. government bureaucracy. It's like putting a Ferrari engine into a dump truck body and still expecting it to win races."

Fair enough. But then he continued, "We need to put the Ferrari engine of FAA excellence into a new, more streamlined, more efficient body."

Huh? FAA excellence? Hello, Mr. President. The FAA hasn't been able to do this job. That's why the taxiways at, and the skies above, O'Hare and La Guardia look like the Kennedy Expressway in a snowy rush hour. Getting a "semiautonomous" agency within a gargantuan government bureaucracy to perform like a private business where failure is not an option sounds oxymoronic to these Midwestern ears.

The air traffic system is desperately in need of dramatic and innovative solutions. It is now clear this task will fall to the next administration. If President-elect George W. Bush can fix this, air travelers on both sides of the aisle will sing his praises. Count on it.