Congress’ budget fails to address future traffic problems — but probably won’t drive travel costs much higher.

We could look at Congress’ proposed budget as the solution to our coming traffic crisis — but only as a proof that we can’t wait to learn from it. The budget should never have been written. The truth is that, years earlier, Congress changed the rules for hiring pilots and medical examiners. Now it wants to change the rules for hiring air traffic controllers. If Congress can change the rules for hiring medical examiners, it can easily change them for hiring air traffic controllers. Yet, few among us would think to change the rules after having already made major changes. Worse, Congress’ vague, vague rules currently allow it to continue tampering with hiring procedures without any external impact.

Here’s an analogy: Suppose you were selling an airline ticket and the auto dealer sold you the wrong automobile for an instant sale. How would you react? You’d rightly call the dealer to complain, bringing up your experiences with this particular dealer. But you wouldn’t call the good dealers and complain about the bad ones. It’s confusing.

But Congress isn’t confused. Here’s how its current actions may result in a trade-off:

Congress is waiting to increase capacity for air traffic controllers, and it wants to hire experienced pilots.

If Congress loosens the hiring rules, then more pilots may be hired and airline ticket prices may rise, which would lead to more airline ticket purchases but fewer ticket sales and more ticket prices.

Will Congress loosen the hiring rules?

If Congress ends up loosening hiring rules, then demand for airline tickets may fall, which will lead to fewer airline ticket sales but more airline ticket prices.

Loosening the hiring rules, and thereby increasing the ranks of experienced airline pilots and decreasing the ranks of inexperienced airline pilots, is probably sound public policy.

It seems only a stretch, then, to say that air traffic controllers would have to seek out experienced pilots once we loosen the hiring rules. I’m not suggesting that Congress should keep these rules. But if it’s clear that loosening the hiring rules will make pilots more available, then the impact may be uncertain. It may be a net gain to the economy overall if pilots are easier to hire than they were when rules were tighter. The question is just how much of a gain.

Of course, if open hiring rules don’t lead to more experienced pilots in the years to come, then U.S. air traffic controller staffing levels will likely continue to fall short of our demands. Washington should focus its attention on finding the best solution — rather than seeking shortcuts to address a traffic problem that the current system can’t handle.

I’ve argued that the country can eventually stabilize its traffic problems, by making the roads friendlier to walkers and cyclists, by developing high-speed rail, and, finally, by changing the rules for hiring pilots and air traffic controllers.

But the idea that breaking the current hiring rules would smooth out our traffic problems on a permanent basis is absurd. As the control tower worker who was reassigned to say hello at the Grand Canyon — back in 2012 — noted: “We put the foxes in charge of the henhouse? Didn’t we do that a long time ago?”

Leave a Comment