News

Thoughtful Commentary vs. Willful Distortions

Crain’s New York Business has recently been a hotbed of writings between advocates for restructuring air traffic control and those who defend the busted status quo. In mid-December, executives from American, JetBlue, Southwest and United airlines penned a thoughtful commentary on how restructuring ATC would relieve congestion in the skies over New York City. Noting that New York’s airports are “consistently ranked among the nation’s top-five most-delayed airports for years,” they urged adoption of a modernized system to be overseen by an independent, not-for-profit organization. Stating that obvious that such a switch will present challenges, they made the trenchant point that “doing nothing is certain to perpetuate a flawed system that is increasingly frustrating and costly both to airlines and our passengers.”

Here’s some excerpts from the piece; if you haven’t read it yet, click here:

“To set the record straight, while there have been modest improvements by [the FAA] that is trying very hard but is severely constrained by budget instability and federal rules, there is still considerable room for improvement. Like our passengers, the overwhelming majority of U.S. airlines are not satisfied with the status quo. We strongly believe the largest and most important air traffic system in the world is well overdue for modernization, something that has eluded numerous attempts over many years.

“The hidden costs to the economy of not addressing this issue are substantial. Cancelations, missed connections and other flight delays create an enormous drag on productivity, personal income, and national economic growth. Equally important, they create great inconvenience and stress for airline passengers.

“… Ten years ago, the FAA began an effort to modernize air-traffic control, and evolve it from its current World War II-era technology. Despite the best of intentions and some $6 billion later, performance goals haven’t been met. The inability to change from within is the result of an outdated organizational model that is failing to meet the needs of the flying public.

It is important to note that the highly respected National Air Traffic Controllers Association has spoken out forcefully about the stress that the current funding levels and uncertainty create for the recruiting, training, and maintaining of air-traffic controllers.”

It didn’t take long for supporters of the status quo to come out firing. Steve Brown, COO of the National Business Aviation Association, wrote a letter claiming the reforms won’t work and mischaracterized what the reforms would do. He forgot to check his facts, though, as Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS, which oversees air traffic control in the United Kingdom, posted a scathing comment about a “number of factual inaccuracies.” In part, he wrote:“In the period, since part-privatisation in 2001, NATS performance in our regulated business has seen average delay per flight come down from over 109 seconds to less than two and a half seconds last year, underlying operating cost reduced by 40% over the same period (this will be closer to 45% by the end of the decade) all while our excellent safety record has been maintained.”

“In the period, since part-privatisation in 2001, NATS performance in our regulated business has seen average delay per flight come down from over 109 seconds to less than two and a half seconds last year, underlying operating cost reduced by 40% over the same period (this will be closer to 45% by the end of the decade) all while our excellent safety record has been maintained.”

A former high-level advisor to the FAA and the Secretary of Transportation also chimed in to criticize Brown for misleading readers:

“The specific proposal likely to be considered in Congress and supported by several major airlines is not the for-profit model used in the U.K., as the letter claimed, but an independent, not-for-profit organization with a board nominated by aviation stakeholders. It would be a self-funded through user fees—eliminating current federal fuel and ticket taxes.”

That was written by Robert Poole, who authored the study on “The Urgent Need to Reform the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System.”

We’re not surprised that supporters of the status quo would twist the facts to defend their position, and we expect that some of the arguments will gain traction. It’s just a shame to see such willful distortion of a system that will improve air travel for passengers, system employees, airline crews, and consumers who rely on air freight to deliver the products they use every day.