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.