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The Cost of Not Reforming Air Traffic Control

Here’s some of what happened inside the FAA during the last government shutdown:

  • Federal contractors weren’t able to perform any work so they didn’t get paid;
  • Critical skills were lost because some contractors found other work, leaving the FAA with a skills gap; and
  • Re-activating contracts that were suspended due to the stoppage cost more money in the long run.

The federal budget sequester with its mandated spending reductions was worse, said Jim Williams, former Director of Engineering Services for the FAA’s NextGen program. His comments published in a lengthy examination of the proposed reform to separate air traffic control operations from the FAA in InsideGNSS magazine. The article is well worth the time it takes to get all the way through. Williams spoke at length about the issues within the FAA because of its rigid agency structure and how that makes it more difficult to fund necessary modernization programs.

Over one five-year period, Williams said he saw the agency’s capital budget fluctuate from $2.4 billion to $3.3 billion. From the article:

“A private-sector operator would be able to sell bonds to smooth out the highs and lows, privatization supporters insist. Williams suggested that business-focused managers also might be better positioned to raise money for critical gaps that government has had difficulty funding — such as addressing cybersecurity issues.”

According to the Transportation Department’s Inspector General, full implementation of NextGen is estimated at triple its original $40B price tag and the agency, if it remains as-is, will need a decade longer than originally planned to get it in place. That means the U.S. won’t be fully rid of a ground-based radar and paper-slips system until 2035 or later.

According to Nancy Graham, a former FAA official who was also the director of the Air Navigation Bureau of the International Civil Aviation Organization, our inability to modernize is already costing us well beyond economic impact of flight delays. From the article:

“U.S. innovation is severely hampered by its current ATC system …

“‘When companies doing research and development look at the implementation opportunities, they don’t go to the U.S. anymore; it’s just too complicated,’ she added. ‘It’s too difficult to work with them under the regulatory scheme that they have. They go elsewhere to look at opportunities for prototyping new technologies. That’s a shame.’”

Despite the caterwauling from those opposing the ATC reforms, Graham says the companies that are operating systems similar to the model proposed in the U.S. House “have a proven track record for safety and better service.” The article continues quoting her saying, “Costs have gone down, cooperation has gone up, transparency has gone up, and the ability for these organizations to manage themselves in a businesslike manner has provided them untold benefits.”

The current FAA authorization has been extended through mid-July. The previous one underwent 23 short-term extensions and took seven years to pass … wait for it … a three-year bill. It took more than twice as long as the authorization lasted to pass it!  While the bill that came out of the House Transportation Committee did include the ATC reforms, the Senate Commerce Committee bill did not. The Senate, though, did “mandate a stack of new reports on NextGen progress,” said the InsideGNSS piece.

The U.S. has already lost its innovation edge over this issue. What’s next? We’ll leave the final word here from the article:

“What’s the alternative?” said Graham. “It has to happen if we are going to continue to have the [economic contribution] that we expect aviation to produce over time.”

Go here to read the full piece.