Aviation Leaders: Without ATC Reform, We Continue Falling Behind in the Skies

Air Transport World has a great write-up of the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Aviation Summit during which a number of aviation leaders made clear the stakes of not reforming air traffic control operations. We’ve separately noted on this blog how American Airlines CEO Doug Parker laid out five indisputable facts about the need for reform and why it’s supported by a broad section of aviation stakeholders like most of the major airlines and the union that represents air traffic controllers.

The Air Transport World piece notes Parker’s strong pushback against some of the opposition’s claim that the reforms would “privatize the system.” From the article:

“For the record, we oppose privatization and would oppose the creation of a private, for-profit entity if that were on the table, but it isn’t.  The new entity would be strictly regulated by the FAA to ensure the highest degree of safety. The plan on the table is not one to change technology or direction, but rather a plan to assure steady, long-term financing and to lift constraints on moving forward with NextGen more quickly and decisively.”

In addition to the FAA retaining safety oversight, the new not-for-profit will be run by a Board of Directors that represents all aviation stakeholders.

JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes, who also spoke at the summit, is quoted in the article addressing the global ramifications of not modernizing ATC:

“We are an outlier on the global stage when it comes to how we run air traffic control. We’re the only [major] country that has the same agency regulating safety and operating the air traffic control system. We need modernization to reduce delays and carbon emissions. Congress has an opportunity to act now.”

Also weighing in on the issue at the summit was retired Boeing Chairman James McNerney, who said the reforms are “critical to the growth of our [aviation] industry and to our economy” despite the fact they don’t “resonate politically as much as it should.” While the average American doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about air traffic control, air travelers do spend a lot of wasted time in airports riding out flight delays. Delays that could be mitigated through reforms to implement modern technology to better route flights.

“Solving this issue [of ATC system reform] is absolutely critical to the growth of our [aviation] industry and to our economy.”

The U.S. is one of the last few remaining developed nations that does not separate ATC function from safety regulations. The longer we continue to rely on antiquated ground-based radar and strips of paper to route the most technically advanced passenger planes ever built, the most we will fall behind other nations.

American Airlines CEO: The Status Quo of ATC Is Not Acceptable

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker delivered a fact-based assessment on the need for air traffic control reform at the 15th annual Aviation Summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. In remarks as prepared for delivery, Parker summarized this situation like this:

“We need to advance from an air traffic control system that continues to use World War II processes and technology to one that incorporates the most up-to-date, satellite-based data communication, and state-of-the-art standards. The question is not the ultimate objective, but how quickly can we get there and will the United States be able to lead the world in advancing Next Generation air traffic control? 

“For more than two decades, study after study has concluded that these common objectives can best be achieved by removing the air traffic organization from federal government budgeting and operating constraints and allowing it to operate in a business-like fashion under strict safety regulation by the FAA. This can be achieved by creating a stable source of funding, facilitating long-term capital expenditures and planning, allowing a steady stream of training and recruiting of employees, and assuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the process.

“If we can accelerate the pace of moving to Next Generation air traffic control we can increase margins of safety sooner, reduce delays, lower carbon emissions, open up more capacity for competition, and provide a stable working environment for the agency’s employees.”

The reform Parker refers to are the ones contained within the U.S. House version of the FAA reauthorization bill. The reforms were met with harsh and somewhat misguided criticisms. While everyone shares the goal of having the safest, most efficient air navigation system in the world, there’s a great chasm of dissent of how we get there. According to Parker, there are five indisputable facts:

      1. Those with the best understanding of air traffic control support the proposed reforms. The last three people who oversaw the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization – the agency’s ATC division – and who personally and daily dealt with financial and organizational constraints, are advocating for the reforms.
      2. The union that represents the men and women doing this work support the reforms. To ensure funding certainty and avoid labor shortages, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association announced its support of efforts to reform ATC as embodied in the House bill.
      3. Airlines that “depend on the system for their very livelihood,” as Parker said, support the reform. The one airline that opposes it – Delta – does so because it benefits from the status quo. Delta’s Atlanta hub is the most benign of the major hubs in terms of airspace traffic and congestion. It would also cost Delta millions of dollars to upgrade its aging fleet to support the modern technology of a new ATC system.
      4. These reforms are bipartisan and are not new, having been first introduced to the wider public under the Clinton Administration and carried through to a Republican lawmaker taking the lead this year.
      5. This isn’t a radical or untested experiment, as has been alleged. More than 50 other countries have moved to a similar model, and not a single one has looked back or considered reversing course.

Parker addressed the opponents’ unfounded attack that the system would increase costs for everyone but their airlines, making clear that the airlines – as the major user of our airspace – would continue to pay nearly all of the costs for air traffic control. The House legislation also exempts non-commercial general aviation flights from the proposed new user fee structure, while giving general aviation two seats on the Board of Directors.

Parker further addressed the inane argument against reform that the U.S. airspace is too complex to change. He said, “This is one of the principal reasons we need reform. … It is all the more we need the resources, the skills, the long-term vision, and the agility to move forward with more speed and with greater margins of safety. If we fall behind in developing and implementing Next Generation technology, the impact will be far greater here than in any other nation.”

The choice before Congress is clear:

“ … either to make the fundamental reforms in this bill or to endorse the status quo. We know what will happen if there is no change. The U.S. will continue to struggle to support the large and complex system with a looming shortage of air traffic controllers, budget constraints, and inability to make long-term plans and commitments. As that happens, the ability to innovate and lead will be increasingly superseded by the need to keep the system operating with limited financial and human resources.”

Sticking with the status quo is not a viable course of action, and the American flying public deserves more.

Sen. Claire McCaskill: “We Are Ignoring A Serious Issue”

We know there are a lot of Senators who recognize that not including air traffic control reform in their version of the FAA Reauthorization is a missed opportunity. Sen. Claire McCaskill pointed this out to her colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee, stating that she’s read the IG and GAO reports on the “dysfunction.” Here’s what Sen. McCaskill had to say:

“I just wanted to briefly put on the record, I have studied the IG and GAO reports on the dysfunction, on NextGen and we have a crisis on Air Traffic Control in this country in terms of how far behind we are. And I just want to urge the Chairman and the Ranking Member to continue to work on this. … I do know we are ignoring a serious issue in our air traffic and probably much more serious than cyber-attack and much more serious than many other issues that we are tackling in this reauthorization. So I just wanted to put on the record that I’m happy to work with anyone to try to move forward because as somebody who studies IG and GAO reports, it’s not a pretty picture right now. And we need to get busy and try to see if we can figure out a way forward.”

On behalf of the more than 2 million people flying everyday over the United States, we commend Sen. McCaskill and encourage her colleagues to listen to her sage counsel.