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Safety, Efficiency and Cost – Why We Need ATC Reform

Managing the world’s busiest and safest airspace is no small task, and it has become more difficult in recent years with the continued delays plaguing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) effort to modernize our nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system. Anyone who flies on a regular basis has experienced increased delays due to air traffic control, and the challenges continue to grow. The Economist explains:

“America’s patchwork of ground-based radio stations and radars dates back to the Kennedy era. Planes are guided to their destinations in a series of zig-zags, as they fly from one control point to the next. It can take ground controllers up to half a minute to get a fix on a plane’s echo transponder. Then there is the time it takes—typically, around 12 seconds—for a radar dish to update a plane’s position. By the time the dish has completed a rotation, an aircraft may have moved a couple of miles.”

Stories abound about the technology gap between the U.S. and other nations, including the fact that we still use paper strips as a key component of tracking flights. Our air traffic controllers do heroic work keeping our skies the safest in the world, but it doesn’t have to be this difficult.

More troubling is that a solution already exists, and yet we haven’t implemented it because politics get in the way. If we separated the ATC service provider from the FAA and created an independent, not-for-profit corporation to manage the system, we would have the flexibility to plan for and deploy the kind of technology that other countries are using to make air travel more efficient.

“The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN agency that oversees worldwide aviation standards, has urged all 191 of its member countries to extricate their air-traffic control from government bureaucracy and political micromanagement—so they can manage the explosive growth in air travel with greater safety and effectiveness.

America remains the biggest holdout.

Insiders are aware that things simply cannot carry on as they are. The number of passengers flying around the world each year is expected to double, to 6.4 billion, by 2030. In America, this is happening as a staffing crisis threatens to bring the country’s ATC system to its knees. The FAA has missed its recruitment target for each of the past seven years. As a consequence, the number of certified air-traffic controllers (some 10,600) is the lowest it has been in 27 years. Making matters worse, some 3,000 of them are approaching retirement age.”

Even with all the stories about the U.S. being in danger of losing our leadership position, some still say the status quo is fine. But the delays and the cost overruns paint a different picture:

“The DOT’s inspector general is also sceptical about the FAA’s estimates of NextGen’s final cost and completion date. The original estimate put the amount the government and industry would pay at $20 billion apiece. The inspector general thinks it could wind up costing ‘two or three times’ as much. Back in 2012, the FAA said all aircraft flying in American airspace would need to have ADS-B transponders installed by 2020. The completion date has since slipped to 2025—and even that could be off ‘by as much as a decade’, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.”

Support for transformational change of the ATC system extends beyond the airlines, the unions and the editorial staff at The Economist. This year alone, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post have all supported removing politics from our ATC system. They all recognize this is the right thing to do for our economy and for the 2 million people who rely on the system every day.