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An early win for the next president? ATC reform

Would it make sense today to manufacture an essential product on a 1950s-era production line? Of course not. But as American Airlines CEO Doug Parker noted recently, fliers in the U.S. “are being shortchanged every day” because the nation’s air traffic control system — the airlines’ “production line,” as he put it — is stuck in the past.

He’s right, and the next president of the United States can lead the way in finally bringing our ATC system fully into the 21st century. Doing so will be good for America and good for every single person who sets foot on a plane. An industry that drives 5 percent of the U.S. economy, executes nearly 27,000 flights a day and drives 11 million jobs needs the best technology to serve its customers safely and efficiently.

In a mere 42 days, America will choose its next president. The acrimony of this election cycle will begin to fade, and the difficult business of governing will begin anew. If the next administration were to look for an early legislative target that is achievable and has for years enjoyed bipartisan support — it’s good for passengers, workers and manufacturers, after all — a smart target would be ATC reform.


Both major-party nominees for president have made infrastructure spending pillars of their campaigns. Often today — and this is the case with air travel and transport — it’s about technology.

A 21st-century economy demands the best technology to produce the efficiency necessary to compete globally. Yet our air traffic control system still relies on technology that was around in World War II. This puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage. We’re counting on the next administration — and the next Congress — to change that.

There is already broad consensus that our nation’s infrastructure, including the air traffic control system, needs swift and aggressive attention to bring it into the 21st century. The question isn’t whether this should be done, but how. The pieces are already in place to make this happen — and quickly.

The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act got further than ever before in Congress, with a bill having passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this past year. Congress should be more committed than ever to passing this much-needed legislation that will take our ATC system to the next level of efficiency and technology.


What would ATC reform accomplish? It would upgrade this country’s air traffic system while helping the U.S. to recapture its position as a global leader in aviation, ensuring that this country could remain competitive globally. Though we already have the safest air traffic system in the world, AIRR would improve accountability by separating the FAA’s service provision from safety oversight to establish for the first time a truly independent structure that ensures accountability. Doing so will create a more nimble, efficient, reliable and even safer system than the one we have today. A MITRE report looked at six countries that have done this, and the results were unassailable. No country would go back.

ATC reform would be a boon for travelers, too. The new structure would take the politics out of operational decisions by creating a dedicated funding source. This matters to fliers, and we’ve seen why as recently as 2013 when a sequester and a shutdown caused massive flight delays while slowing work on NextGen, a 21st century GPS satellite-based system that will replace the 1950s-era technology currently in place.

NextGen installation has proceeded in fits and starts because funding for it, and governance of it, have been erratic. The next president can make this a priority by sidelining the politics of ATC reform. Doing so will help to get NextGen over the finish line so fliers can enjoy better experiences and more choices.

There aren’t many issues in our nation’s capital today that can pull people from both sides of the aisle. ATC reform has support from three former Transportation secretaries of both parties. All three of the former FAA Chief Operating Officers have said we desperately need this transformational change, in addition to the air traffic controllers union (NATCA) and other unions.

Transformation isn’t easy, but big ideas never are. Many Americans have come to see Washington as the place where good ideas go to die. The next president and Congress have the opportunity — by passing ATC reform — to quickly show that the federal government can do big things to strengthen the country while improving lives.

Outlet: Politico
Author: Nick Calio
Type: Online
Date: August 27, 2016
Title: An early win for the next president? ATC reform