Air Traffic Control Reform is the Most Exciting Way to Improve our Nation’s Infrastructure

Earlier this week, President Trump hosted a CEO Town Hall at the White House to discuss the American business climate. In the first panel of the day, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Gary Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, talked through the Administration’s path towards improving our national infrastructure. Reed Cordish, the assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives moderated the conversation which included a number of important highlights, but perhaps the biggest takeaway was what Mr. Cohn had to say about air traffic control reform: “Air traffic control to me is probably the single most exciting thing we can do for a lot of reasons.”

Mr. Cohn laid out the reasons why ATC reform is a priority for this Administration. Not only are many other countries way ahead of the United States on this front, but this issue also impacts every state and every person in the country – whether they fly or not.

Check out the video below to hear Mr. Cohn’s full remarks on the importance of ATC reform and click here for the video of the full town hall event.

Gary Cohn CEO Townhall 4.4.17 from Airlines for America (A4A) on Vimeo.

Momentum Builds around Air Traffic Control Reform

From its endorsement by the Washington Post’s editorial board to its inclusion in the Administration’s budget, the effort to reform and modernize our air traffic control (ATC) system has been gaining steam. As the list of key influencers supporting transformational reform continues to grow, so does the attention being paid to one of the most important infrastructure issues we face today.

In a recent articleThe Washington Post highlighted the inadequate nature of our current ATC system and showed how efforts to modernize have stalled under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) structure. To understand exactly how far behind the system is, we need only to look at the example of how responsibility for controlling a plane is transferred:

“Each time an air traffic controller transfers responsibility for a plane to a colleague, the handoff is quite literal. He hands a narrow strip of paper with the plane’s information on it to the fellow controller.”

To make matters worse, it will be a while before we can catch up with today’s technology. “We are at least eight years away from replacing this paper-strip system,” according to former transportation secretary James H. Burnley.

In an age where we have satellite based GPS on our phones and in our cars, an ATC system that relies on paper strips is almost unimaginable.

But the slow pace of technological advancement is a symptom of a much larger problem. Without significant changes to the funding and governance structure of our ATC operations, modernization will continue to get bogged down by political gamesmanship and funding fights.

We couldn’t describe the current situation better than former Senator Byron Dorgan, who co-chairs an aviation study group for the Eno Center for Transportation:

“They are in the Stone Age. We are not capable of moving with any speed at all toward this next-generation satellite guidance unless we have a different kind of governance.”

Support for meaningful and transformational ATC reform extends beyond nonpartisan think tanks and transportation policy experts. The growing list of supporters now includes the Administration, elected officials from both sides of the aisle, the majority of the airline industry, major labor groups like the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

In a piece published earlier this week, they noted that as part of the effort to improve our nation’s infrastructure, the Administration has “landed on one excellent idea: Spinning off air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration.”

From taking the FAA’s management of the modernization effort to task, to showing how other countries have instituted and flourished with updated ATC systems, the WSJ editorial board captured the immediate need for reform, showed how the system can and should work, and debunked a few myths that proponents of the status quo keep pushing. This wasn’t the first time the WSJ editorialized on ATC reform: see this piece from June 10, 2016.

Like the story in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal editorial board found another example that truly illustrates the problems with the system the way it operates today:

“Pilots currently bounce from one radio point to the next, which can result in roundabout routes and wasted fuel. The Transportation Department’s Inspector General airdrops the occasional damning report on FAA’s NextGen modernization program, whose ‘total costs and timelines remain unclear,’ according to the November installment. FAA may finish the project a decade after the 2025 deadline—or 20 years after its technology is obsolete.”

Inefficiencies, delays and no clear budget or timeline for how we get over this hurdle is unacceptable when there aren’t just ideas for system reforms, but examples of them:

“Nav Canada and other nations collect user fees, not taxes, which forces management to be more cost-effective. The U.S. air-traffic trust fund rakes in money from the domestic passenger ticket tax (7.5%); the commercial fuel tax ($0.043 per gallon); and other fees. FAA also receives money from Congress, and so funding is a political football in fights like the 2013 government shutdown, which furloughed controllers. Nav Canada operates independently with a 15-member board.

Fears in Canada that fees would increase without government oversight haven’t panned out. Consumer charges have dropped by one-third compared with the previous tax scheme. Canada handles 50% more traffic with 30% fewer employees, according to a 2015 Brookings Institution report. Nav Canada even sells some of its new technology and reinvests the proceeds.”

The ideas are there, the technology exists and examples of how we can improve our nation’s ATC system are already in place in other countries. It’s time to modernize our skies.

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.