[Updating: on guessing — see below] The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) — the non-union union representing U.S. air traffic controllers — attacked plans to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system with the following statement:
Cleveland controllers alone handle more operations annually than Canada’s entire privatized system.
Cleveland airport? The airport serving that little city called the mistake by the lake? Presumably not, though it doesn’t hurt Carr’s cause to let congress think that’s what he meant. He’s almost certainly talking about Cleveland Center, one of the world’s busiest air traffic control facilities, handling traffic across an enormous part of the northeastern U.S. including two major hubs (Pittsburgh and Detroit) as well as most enroute traffic between Chicago and points east; according to their web page, they handle over 3 million operations per year.
That’s a lot, but is it more than all of Nav Canada? Not quite. According to this news backgrounder from their web site, Nav Canada handled 11 million operations in 2004.
Was Carr deliberately lying? Saying that “Cleveland” has more operations than Canada is clearly an attempt to mislead a bit (he’s hoping that members of congress will mistakenly assume he means the city of Cleveland, rather than an air traffic control unit covering much of the northeastern U.S.), but it might be going too far to call that a lie. What about the number? It might be possible to get a number bigger than 11 million for Cleveland Center simply by creatively counting all operations for all facilities under Cleveland’s airspace. For example, let’s look at an IFR flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh: Detroit tower handles the flight during taxi and take off, then passes it to Detroit departure for initial flight, which then hands it off to Cleveland center for enroute, which then hands it off to Pittsburgh arrival to set up the approach, which then hands it off to Pittsburgh tower for landing and taxi. If NATCA simply added up all of the operations for all ATC units underneath Cleveland Center, that single, short flight would count as five operations. I’m guessing that’s what happened. Nav Canada uses a single, electronic slip for flights from taxi to tie-down, so I’m pretty sure that they count each one only once.
I don’t know if it would be best for the U.S. to stick with its current socialized system or to move to a privatized, Nav Canada style system — I get good service from ATC on both sides of the border — but let’s keep the debate honest, and avoid any Enron-style counting on either side.
Update: one interesting point of discussion in the comments to this posting is my use of phrases like “I’m guessing” and “I’m pretty sure.” It’s worth noting that in both cases, the fuzzy stuff was an attempt to give Mr. Carr the benefit of a doubt — the cold facts alone look very bad for Mr. Carr in this case, and my guesses were attempts to try to find some way that his statement could have been an honest misunderstanding rather than a deliberate deception.