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For weary US air travelers, some Canadian lessons

Cheaper and more high-tech, the US could take cues from Canada's privatized system, a new report says.

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Following one of the worst years on record for American flight delays, US officials are struggling to fix what are widely seen as the problems: an outdated air-traffic control system, and a shortage of runways.

The answer may be right next door in Canada, which has privatized air-traffic operations, according to a report being released today in Washington.

Since it was established in 1996, the private, nonprofit Nav Canada has cut fees by 30 percent, increased controllers' salaries, and begun upgrading this country's air-traffic-control (ATC) technology from paper strips to computers.

The report, published by the free-enterprise Reason Public Policy Institute, is expected to have an impact in Washington, where Congress has considered legislation forcing airlines to improve customer satisfaction.

"Nav Canada is an alternative that will have to be looked at very closely," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute of George Washington University.

Part of the US problem, some experts say, is that the Federal Aviation Administration is both a regulator and an operator.

FAA officials "are good regulators," says Mr. Jenkins, "but do we expect good regulators to be good at technology? That's like asking the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to make pills. We're giving them a task they can't accomplish."

Another problem, experts say, is that the agency is dependent on funding from Congress. "This has been a disaster, particularly in procurement [of new technology]," says Robert Poole, author of the study. "The FAA has been trying to modernize for 20 years, and they've spent billions, without having a lot to show for it."

Nav Canada relies on user fees on passenger and cargo airlines. Its governing board of "stakeholders" includes representatives from government, airlines, unions, and airport authorities.

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