Unfortunately, Congress ignored Mr. Kahn’s warning. Air traffic grew and grew, but the air traffic control (ATC) system plodded along as a stodgy, bureaucratic government operation. It gradually introduced better displays and more modern computers, but most of these projects were delivered years late and way over budget. Airports were generally better managed, but remained passive when airlines scheduled far more flights at busy times of day than their runways could handle, leading to ever-longer delays in major cities.
As recently as the early 1990s, more than 81 percent of flights arrived on time, according to US Department of Transportation figures. By 2007, that number had plunged to 73 percent. Thus, prior to the current recession, about 1 out of every 4 flights arrived more than 15 minutes late.
During the 1990s, other countries began reforming the way their ATC systems were governed and funded. The common diagnosis was that ATC is essentially a high-tech service business that doesn’t really fit the model of a government department that depends on annual tax funding and micromanagement.