Wall Street Journal Editorial: U.S. Air-Traffic Liberation

The Wall Street Journal editorializes today on the need to upgrade the country’s “ancient” air traffic control (ATC) system. Each year, delays, cancellations and missed connections add up to $30 billion in annual economic losses. From the Journal’s editorial,

“Next time you’re 27th in line for takeoff on a airport tarmac, thank the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration runs an air-traffic control system on the best technology World War II could offer, so it’s good news that some in Congress are trying to free up the aviation community to adopt better practices.

… “U.S. airlines will serve a billion passengers a year by 2029, but the FAA hasn’t rebooted since the 1960s. You may have more accurate traffic and weather information driving with an iPhone than a pilot cruising at 30,000 feet, as the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole puts it. Radar still tracks flight location, though GPS can beep out a more precise measurement. Flights last longer thanks to meandering routes as planes pass from one control center to the next. Inefficient patterns burn up fuel.”

Legislation from the House Transportation Committee would separate air navigation from safety regulation putting the former into a not-for-profit company while the FAA would retain authority over the latter. The GAO looked at five non-government run ATC systems around the globe and found that “safety either improved or stayed the same.” So arguments from opponents that a not-for-profit company would compromise safety are null and void. Likewise, fear-stoking from the general aviation community that they would be subjected to additional fees are contradicted by the legislation itself: private fliers are exempt from the user-fee structure.

The Wall Street Journal also sets the record straight on the real reason behind Delta’s opposition:

“Delta Air Lines says consumer fees will skyrocket, but in Canada inflation-adjusted fees have dropped by 30% since the switch. Delta’s dissent is rent-seeking: The company’s aircraft are on average years older than competing fleets, and retrofitting would be costly.”

Transportation Committee Chairman Shuster and Ranking Member DeFazio agree that the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill is not the right path forward. And while there are still legislative hurdles to overcome, airline passengers, air traffic controllers, and the companies that depend on air transportation for commerce deserve real ATC reform.

Read the full editorial here.

The Wall Street Journal: “The Air-Traffic System U.S. Airlines Wish They Had”

As the summer travel season approaches and the increasing traffic stresses the air navigation system, we should be doing all that we can to help improve the capacity of our nation’s infrastructure. This is a major component of the Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this year.

The idea is simple, but certainly not without precedent. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would solely focus on what is and will remain the first priority – safety. The bill aims to create a separate not-for-profit entity that would focus on the day-to-day operations. A piece in today’s Wall Street Journal by Scott McCartney, headlined “The Air-Traffic System U.S. Airlines Wish They Had,” notes that this has been successfully modeled in Canada and dozens of other countries, including Germany, France, and Australia. The Canadian air-traffic control agency, NavCanada, is the world’s second largest behind the U.S. with flights to and from the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

The article states:

“Flying over the U.S.-Canadian border is like time travel for pilots. Going north to south, you leave a modern air-traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up… In Canada, pilots and controllers send text messages back and forth, reducing errors from misunderstood radio transmissions. Requests for altitude changes are automatically checked for conflicts before they even pop up on controllers’ screens. Computers look 20 minutes ahead for any planes potentially getting too close to each other. Flights are monitored by a system more accurate than radar, allowing them to be safely spaced closer together to add capacity and reduce delays.” 

NavCanada was created twenty years ago as a result of intransigent governmental and budgetary operations, similar to what we have faced recently in this country which have led to furloughs of critical air traffic controllers. It is a major reason why their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), supported the House-passed bill. Bureaucratic red tape has also led to American air traffic controllers relying on ground-based radar and paper strips to manage air traffic control, which is a relic of more than 50 years. The U.S. is one of few modern nations not to use electronic flight strips, which pass critical flight information among controllers electronically. It is similar to passing notes in the 21st Century to move 2 million people across the country daily safely.

We can, and should, do better.

The benefits in Canada have been palpable. Due to the utilization of newer technology, not only are flights traveling more efficiently and with fewer delays, but it has also led to reduced fuel consumption, and ultimately lower costs and thus lower fees. NavCanada will announce its third reduction in fees later this year, which are imposed on airlines based on size and length of flight. The House bill seeks to accomplish the same goal by replacing airline ticket taxes with a user fee structure.

Specifically, the article notes:

“The key, NavCanada says, is its nongovernmental structure. Technology, critical to efficient airspace use these days, gets developed faster than if a government agency were trying to do it, officials say. Critics say slow technology development has been the FAA’s Achilles’ heel.”

Make sure to read the full piece here.

The current FAA authorization expires during the peak of summer travel season, on July 15. Now is the time for Congress to act to bring our nation’s air traffic control system on par with our northern neighbors and most industrialized countries, before we face a crisis and America’s global leadership in air navigation erodes.

Delta: Status Quo Is Just Fine, Thank You

Our air traffic control system is riddled with challenges: 1) the system is antiquated, our controllers do heroic work using WWII-era radar and paper strips; 2) a third of our controllers are currently eligible for retirement, and the training/recruitment pipeline is weak; yet 3) the number of flyers on U.S. carriers has climbed for the sixth consecutive year, and it’s expected to continue rising, putting our air traffic control system under extraordinary stress.

In the face of these challenges, Delta continues to be in denial about the imminent crisis facing our nation’s air traffic control operations and they are fighting against the reforms that will enhance safety, deliver modernization and improve flight experiences for passengers and crews.  The reason is simple: Delta alone is benefiting from the status quo and doesn’t want to spend the money to upgrade its aging fleet.

“Delta makes no secret about its strategy of investing in select older aircraft in lieu of spending money on comparable newer ones. Among the big four U.S. carriers (counting American and US Airways as one), Delta has the highest average mainline fleet age, at 17.3 years, the Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) Commercial Fleets database shows. No other carrier’s fleet averages above 14 years.” (Delta Balancing Older Aircraft, Maintenance Costs. Aviation Week. 1-22-14.)

While defending NextGen, Delta ignores multiple independent findings that mismanagement, congressional politics and budget impasses are standing in the way of its ability to achieve its desired outcomes.

“The original vision for the Next Generation Air Transportation System is not what is being implemented today, and the Federal Aviation Administration should “reset expectations” for the program meant to modernize and transform the national airspace.” (FAA Should ‘Reset Expectations’ for Next Generation Air Transportation System.  National Academy of Sciences News. 5-1-15)

“NextGen-critical programs remain over budget and behind schedule due to overambitious plans, unresolved requirements, software development problems, ineffective contract management, and unreliable cost and schedule estimates.” (FAA Reforms Have Not Achieved Expected Cost, Efficiency and Modernization. DOT OIG Report1-15-16)

Delta’s suggestion that its operational performance is proof that today’s model is not broken is actually proof that its fortress hub where it is the dominant carrier is simply less congested. From a competitive perspective, Delta benefits when all other carriers—and millions of customers–face delays in their hubs. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker made clear that Delta has “a different agenda” from the major airlines that do support ATC reform. From a Bloomberg article:

“Atlanta, Delta’s largest hub, isn’t as congested or delay-prone as other airports, so the airline may be satisfied with the current system, Parker said. Some of the most delay-plagued airports are in the Northeast, at Philadelphia International, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey and LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International in New York.

“’Why is it that Delta believes something different that no other airline believes?’ Parker said. ‘I don’t think it’s because they have different facts. I think it’s because they have a different agenda. What’s best for Delta is for the rest of us to live in an environment that is relatively more harmful to us than to them.’”

We think that Delta CEO Richard Anderson had it right three years ago when he described the current state of our air traffic control systems in an interview with CEO Wire.

“The air traffic control system is the same air traffic control system we had 30 years ago.” (“Delta Air Lines – CEO Interview,” CEO Wire, 5/23/13)

Later that same day advocated for modern skies and air traffic control reform in an interview with Charlie Rose.

“We’ve got to have a modernized air traffic control system.” (“Charlie Rose Talks to Delta CEO Richard Anderson,” Bloomberg Business, 5/23/13)