His latest book, Managing the Skies: Public Policy, Organization, and Financing of Air Navigation, argued that the American air traffic control system has fallen far behind the rest of the developed world. The United States is the last major country that finances air traffic control with taxes – mostly excise taxes on airline tickets – rather than user fees, and it's the only developed nation whose government still runs air traffic control directly. Faced with a mismatch between air traffic volumes, which drive costs, and the revenue that flights generate, Oster wrote, the United States would do well to look at the alternative air traffic control systems of Canada, Europe, and Australia.
Now more research is emerging in line with Oster's argument. A new book, Aviation Infrastructure Performance: A Study in Comparative Political Economy, from Brookings Institution Press and edited by Clifford Winston and Gines De Rus, rounds up the latest writings from experts on the topic. The book examines how airports and air traffic control systems around the globe are addressing the problems of congestion and travel delays, and concludes that the United States could indeed learn significant lessons from other countries' attempts to reduce the government's role in aviation.
In addition, a new study in Canadian Public Administration, the journal of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, shows that the commercialization of air traffic control organizations has greatly improved performance with regard to cost, safety, and technical modernization. The study examined the performance of 10 international commercial air navigation service providers from 1997 to 2004 and compared them to the United States Federal Aviation Administration. The evidence shows that reforms are most successful when government micro-management is limited, when customers are involved in decision-making, and when the government is most concerned with oversight of safety.
"This research will have significance on the long-term governance arrangements of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which remains a government department," the authors conclude. "The FAA exhibits many of the restraints on performance that affected air traffic control provision in other countries before commercialization."