Guest Column

U.S. Air Traffic Control Isn’t Working; Here's How to Fix it

For over 30 years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has tried – and failed –to modernize America’s woefully dysfunctional air traffic control system (ATC). It is time to get ATC out from under the thumbs of federal bureaucrats and partisan politicians, and create a completely new structure that will get U.S. air traffic moving.

American ATC is stuck in the 1950s. Unbelievably enough, in the age of computers, U.S. air traffic controllers still hand each other little slips of paper to track aircraft locations. Pilots are forced to fly from one radar point to another (a 70-year old technology), instead of following the most direct routes from A to B. Our air space is so congested it takes 20% longer to fly to most places today than it did 20 years ago.

The solution to this problem, a commonsense fix that has been on the table for years, is to divorce ATC functions from FAA’s mission of ensuring air safety. This would rescue reform efforts from stifling FAA bureaucracy, federal procurement and personnel rules, and partisan politics. A private/public partnership – not a for-profit privatization – would enable us to move to a more workable system, similar to those that have been doing an exemplary job of controlling air traffic flows in more than 50 other countries for years. Including our good neighbor Canada.

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Canada created an independent, nonprofit ATC user cooperative, NAV CANADA, in 1996. It has been extremely successful, not only in moving air passengers and cargo, but also in reducing costs for consumers. Over the last 20 years, fees have decreased 30%, with surplus revenues invested back into new technologies. Comparative Canadian airline flights of similar distances can be provided with ATC services for a little more than half of what we spend in the U.S.

A modern, “next gen” ATC system utilizing satellite technology, advanced software, and text and data tools would reduce U.S. travel times, flight delays, and cancellations. It would even decrease the excess carbon emissions created by airplanes flying longer than necessary routes. Funded by reasonable user fees that ensure everyone pays their fair share, a reinvented ATC system would save taxpayers and flyers billions of dollars.

A proposal to remake the FAA, the 21st Century AIRR Act, has been introduced in Congress. Everyone from consumer advocates to airlines to ATC union members are on board with this plan, which has drawn support from both Republicans and Democrats. They all understand that the status quo is unfixable and needs to be replaced with an entirely new system based on the tools at our disposal today, not those that were high-tech at the end of World War II. 

David Grizzle, a former chief operating officer of the FAA, said: “The FAA suffers from an unstable procurement system and an unpredictable federal funding structure that hampers the agency from improving technology incrementally so it’s always up to date, which also undermines the FAA's ability to train and maintain a qualified workforce. We should make the changes necessary to preserve America's leadership in global aviation. This can only happen with systemic ATC reform."

That needed reform has to come from outside the FAA. The FAA has been “working” on ATC modernization since 1981, so far spending some $56 billion on a task that was supposed to cost $12 billion and take 10 years to complete. They’ve had their chance. Congress and the Trump administration need to embrace a new strategy that will get the government out of air traffic control and usher in a new era in U.S. aviation.

Steve Forbes is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media.

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