Time to Get U.S. Air Traffic Control Out of the 1960s
Dozens of countries have modernized successfully.
"We live in a modern age and yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past," President Donald Trump said at a White House event announcing his plan to modernize America's aging air traffic control system. "The FAA has been trying to upgrade our nation's air traffic control system for a long period of years, but after billions and billions of tax dollars spent and many years of delays, we're still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn't work."
Trump is largely throwing his support behind Rep. Bill Shuster's (R-PA) air traffic control reform proposal. Shuster's bill, which passed a House committee last year but didn't make it to the House floor, would convert the air traffic system from today's taxpayer-funded organization run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) into a self-funded, nonprofit corporation where all aviation stakeholders — passengers, airlines, airports, controllers, and pilots — would be represented on a board of directors.
This concept has the bipartisan support of numerous former leaders of the FAA and Department of Transportation, as well as most major airlines, the air traffic controllers' union, and business groups. The Clinton administration pushed a similar plan in the 1990s.
The current version grew out of the 2013 federal budget standoff and sequester, which saw furloughs of air traffic controllers and the near shut-down of 149 smaller air traffic control towers. This highlighted several flaws in the system, as more people recognized air traffic control is a fast-moving, high-tech service business that is a poor fit for a slow-moving government regulatory agency whose funding is subject to the political whims of Congress.
The US air traffic system is the world's largest, but technologically it severely lags behind other countries that have already implemented digital messaging, GPS flight tracking, and newer alternatives to the 1960s-era systems still found in US air traffic facilities.
"At a time when every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air traffic control system still runs on radar and ground-based radio systems," Trump said.
The world's second-largest air traffic system, Nav Canada, was "corporatized" 20 years ago. Over 60 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, have self-supporting air traffic control corporations.
This plan would shift air traffic control funding so that it is paid for, not by taxes, but by aircraft operators paying for the services received. A stream of user payments is more reliable than tax funding. It also enables air traffic corporations to issue long-term revenue bonds to pay for modernization projects, which is why countries like Canada and the UK are far ahead of the US.
These countries already use advanced tracking and communications technology that our controllers can only dream about. Thanks to FAA's cumbersome budgeting and upgrade process, this technology will continue to be implemented in the US in dribs and drabs over the next 15 years.
The proposal would also improve air traffic safety. Since 2001, international aviation law has called for arm's length separation between air safety regulators and the providers of air traffic services. Nearly all countries have made this change, but the United States has not. The FAA both provides air traffic services and regulates them. Finding and reporting problems requires the FAA to turn itself in — a clear, built-in conflict of interest.
For pilots and passengers, better oversight and upgraded air traffic control technology would mean shorter lines for planes waiting to take off, more direct routes between cities, and fewer delays for planes waiting to land. That would result in shorter trip times, less fuel used and fewer emissions.
In short, nonprofit air traffic corporations have a global track record of delivering increased air safety and better value for passengers, airports and aircraft operators. The time for U.S. air traffic control reform has arrived.