Three US Airways jets came uncomfortably close to crashing into each other above Ronald Reagan Washing National Airport a month ago, thanks to botched instructions from the air traffic controllers there.
This followed an incident in March that has become depressingly familiar: A controller fell asleep on the job, forcing two planes to land without assistance from the tower. The Federal Aviation Administration reported 1,887 such "operational errors" in fiscal 2010, up from 1,234 the previous fiscal year.
We wouldn't have to run a lot of these risks in the first place if the United States used the most up-to-date air traffic control technology. Global positioning systems have revolutionized air travel, overtaking the old radar-based technology. But progress in adopting the new technology has been slow.
"If we had these [GPS] systems in place, we could reduce congestion and improve air traffic control and dispatching so that the likelihood of these situations occurring would be reduced," said Marc Scribner, transportation policy analyst for the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Why the FAA is so slow to change is a classic tale of big-government inertia: layer upon layer of regulatory red tape, cost overruns and public-sector unions being given virtual veto power over any change. Meanwhile the efforts to make air traffic safer languish.
The FAA's upgrade program, called NextGen, is years behind schedule. An FAA inspector general report last month notes that "FAA has not yet resolved many of the barriers," and estimated that it will take five years just to implement procedures for streamlining the process. NextGen isn't scheduled to be up and running until 2025.
A major stumbling block is the FAA's "air traffic facility realignment and consolidation effort," i.e., its inability to close several facilities and consolidate them into a few larger, integrated ones to house the NextGen technology.
A key player is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. President Reagan famously broke the old union in the 1980s. The new one took its place in 1987 and has regained most of its Washington clout.
A Transportation Department inspector general report in May stated bluntly that "success of the FAA's plans also depends on how it addresses significant workforce issues [and] ... will also require FAA to collectively bargain with its unions."
The report goes on to note that while NATCA leadership has expressed support for the overall project, its local affiliates are pushing back.
"During our visits to the New York Center and New York [facilities], FAA and union officials indicated that they would oppose plans to build an integrated facility outside of Long Island," the IG report said.
In congressional testimony in May, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said his union supports realignments, provided the changes are improvements over the old system. But he added: "To date, the majority of the FAA's business cases have not stood up to that scrutiny."
In other words, we support realignment, except when we don't, which is most of the time.
"The unions are concerned that a true computer-driven digital aviation monitoring will make quite a few of their employees redundant," CEI's Scribner said.
The unions have major say in how those projects go forward. The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act directs the agency to take input from labor and industry to develop a consensus on realignment.
Rinaldi explained how his union got two proposed facility realignments to be put on hold. "Both proposals were evaluated, first by the FAA, then jointly by the FAA and NATCA. The collaborative review of all of the associated data resulted in a different conclusion than the review without NATCA's collaboration." Funny how that works out.
CEI's Scribner was careful to point out that the union was just one part of the delays. The restructuring of the entire air traffic control system is a vast project and the FAA is "bungling" it overall.
By contrast, Canada already began implementing its own GPS-based system a decade ago. "Canada -- socialist Canada -- privatized their air traffic control system in the mid-'90s," Scribner noted with some irony. "But here in the free-market bastion of the United States, we are behind."
Sean Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.