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.