SOMEWHERE OVER ARIZONA – As I return home from a business trip to Washington, D.C., I’m able to send out this dispatch thanks to a modern Boeing aircraft’s onboard wi-fi. The airplane is also outfitted with the most up-to-date fuel-saving design and safety technology.
And yet as we make our way to Sky Harbor, our route is guided via decades-old systems. My Uber drivers shuttling me around D.C. were using more modern navigational software.
Air travel has changed dramatically, but some segments of the industry are hopelessly stuck in the past.
The cost of delays
Frequent flyers like me have routines that look a lot different than they did years ago, including time-saving moves like carrying on my luggage when possible and being enrolled in TSA’s PreCheck program. My schedule is planned minute to minute, usually with an obligation shortly after my flight lands. Like a lot of travelers, flight delays can throw off my whole day. Unfortunately, though, more of us are forced to deal with the consequences of delays.
The U.S. has seen flight times increase over the past 25 years, even as aircraft have become more fuel efficient and technologically advanced. For example, a flight from New York to Washington, D.C. used to take just over 66 minutes. Now, air traffic control plans for 78 minutes. Like a freeway at rush hour, our airspace is overly congested, and travelers are paying the price.
The Citizens for On Time Flights coalition is leading a campaign to modernize our air traffic control system and move ATC out from under the federal government to an independent, non-profit, government-chartered organization governed by aviation professionals. This will allow for a more efficient and timely reform of the ATC system, which has long been needed. In order to fix the system, we need a new organizing structure that treats the nation’s aviation operations like a high-tech business (rather than a lumbering bureaucracy), and a more reliable funding stream.
Why do we need reform?
We need ATC modernization to decrease the inefficiencies and disruption that result from flight delays and cancelations, which are ultimately a drag on our just-in-time economy.
A rational reaction to a flight delay or cancelation is frustration. We sometimes blame the weather or plane maintenance, but it’s often the system itself that is to blame. Currently, the United States works with a 1960s radar and WWII-era flight tracking technology. With a modernized ATC, we can make a flight’s journey from point A to B more direct and efficient and we can all increase our productivity. Our skies would be clearer and our flights on time.
Kudos to our air traffic controllers for being able to work with such outdated resources and keep our skies safe, but the whole system needs an upgrade.
Air traffic control in the U.S. should be known for having the latest state-of-the-art technology to ensure flight safety and improve operational performance. Unfortunately, our aging radar and flight-tracking tools are prone to faults and glitches. With a predictable funding stream funded by the system’s users, this problem can be rectified.
What’s preventing the U.S. from upgrading its ATC?
Under the current model, funding is dependent on congressional appropriations. However, the budget process is less than predictable.
Today’s funding model does not provide a way to plan for long-term capital investments that are necessary to build and maintain a world-class system. When we look back at the government shutdown in 2013, for example, air traffic control took a hit when the Federal Aviation Administration had to lay-off employees and was close to shutting down nearly 150 contract towers. The country’s aviation system is too important to leave it to the mood of the day on Capitol Hill.
To ensure a reliable system without the occasional interruptions of congressional budget impasses, politics must be removed from the operations of air traffic control.
We’re behind the times. Over 50 countries have implemented ATC reform and modernization, placing operations and safety into separate management channels. If the United States were to do this, it would allow the FAA to put its complete regulatory focus on guaranteeing the safety of our air travel, allowing the new non-profit entity to focus its expertise solely on the business operations of the system.
Our laws and regulatory systems should keep pace with technology. Aviation has experienced a major technological leap in the last few decades, but our air traffic control systems have been left behind. Let’s bring what’s happening on the ground in aviation up to the same level as what’s happening in the sky.
What’s the solution?
The ATC governance and funding structure needs to change. It’s too important to be treated like a political football in Washington, denying the system the stability and certainty it needs.
Credit to the president for making this a priority. Congress should do the same and adopt reforms to let the FAA do what it does best – regulate for safety – and place the air traffic control function in a federally chartered organization with aviation stakeholder oversight.