2017 Presents Historic Opportunity for ATC Infrastructure Reform

With the election behind us and the transition to a new administration in full swing, everyone is wondering what 2017 will bring.

It’s not always easy to set aside the politics of it all, but it’s important to remember that the incoming administration and the newly elected Congress will have some serious policy questions to tackle, including what infrastructure sectors are going to be priorities moving forward. Modernizing our air traffic control (ATC) infrastructure must be high on the priority list.

When we think of infrastructure, it’s easy to focus on projects like roads and bridges and highways, but our nation’s airspace needs to be part of this conversation. The commercial aviation industry supports 10 million jobs and accounts for nearly 5 percent of our economy. In order for this sector to continue create jobs and drive economic growth, a fundamental change in our approach to our nation’s air traffic control system is needed.

A record  high 27 million passengers took to the skies for the Thanksgiving holiday travel period. Driving that demand is the fact that inflation-adjusted ticket prices are near an an all-time low.  Air travel is the fastest, most cost efficient way and safest mode of inter-city travel. With flying as accessible as it has ever been, we expect more people to choose flying in the coming years and those passengers deserve the best travel experience possible.

Unfortunately, when it comes to providing the most efficient air travel available, politics have been an obstacle for too long. Other countries have found ways to deploy updated technology and more efficient systems which allow their airspace to be managed more effectively, while our outdated system relies on a World War II-era ground-based radar system and paper strips. We have GPS navigation on our phones and in our cars, but can’t get past Washington’s gridlock to implement those same technologies throughout our ATC system. The technology and efficiency gaps in our system lead to issues like delays and cancellations which the FAA estimates cost our country $30 billion every year.

But it’s more than just a delay in rolling out new technology; governance and oversight also need an overhaul if we’re ever going to get politics out of the way. If we could separate the ATC service provider from the safety oversight function of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as many other countries do today, that would resolve a significant conflict standing in the way of transformational reform and help maintain our leadership in global aviation. This approach also has the added benefit of enhancing our already best-in-the-world safety record by taking system improvements out of the hands of the FAA, enabling the agency to focus on its most important mission: safety.

The vast majority of industry stakeholders support our approach, and not just because the FAA’s efforts have cost billions of dollars with little to show for it. According to a recent Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general report, the ability for the FAA to fully implement six of its transformational NextGen programs is increasingly suspect.

The report specifies that in order to complete the FAA’s current work on these six transformational projects, they will need an additional $5.7 billion dollars, but even finishing the current work won’t allow the programs to be fully implemented. More time and more money will be needed to make these projects a reality.

The Associated Press recently reported that uncertainty about the FAA’s ability to deliver on its promises has created serious questions about whether the status quo approach can improve the way the U.S. manages our airspace.

The FAA has sold the six transformational programs to Congress and the public “as core efforts that would fundamentally change the way the agency would manage air traffic, communicate with pilots, and exchange data with airspace users,” Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation, said in the report. “However, our review has found that, at least until 2020, most of the transformational programs will not transform how air traffic is managed.”

Moreover, there has been “significant ambiguity both within FAA and the aviation community about expectations for NextGen,” including the ability of core programs to deliver important new capabilities, the report said.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, summarized the findings in the report: “the FAA’s original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today. Instead of fundamentally changing how air traffic is managed, the agency’s efforts have shifted to replacing and updating decades-old equipment and systems.”

We need a new approach. We need a system that prioritizes safety and implements the newest, most advanced technology while ensuring accountability and securing funding for necessary improvements by removing those decisions from the political process.

We need ATC reform to be addressed as a critical infrastructure need that will benefit the 2 million people who fly every day. The next administration and the newly elected Congress are in a unique position to solve this policy problem and create significant benefits to our economy at the same time.