Lines Aren’t the Only Air Travel Problem

By now, you have probably have seen multiple stories in the media about the long lines at security checkpoints plaguing airports across the country. You may even have the unfortunate experience of standing an hour or more in one of those long lines. You may have also heard about the numerous Congressional hearings and discussions that are trying to address the problem before summer travel kicks into full swing.

But there is another, much less visible area of aviation that also impacts your travel. It is an area that Congress can act to improve greatly: air traffic control.

Air traffic control in this country is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration and funded by the taxes we all pay each time we fly, as well as a portion of our paychecks. It is a safe and complex system that allows more than 2 million people to travel hundreds or thousands of miles across the country safely each day. Unfortunately, it is also a system in dire need of upgrade.

While your cellphone can use satellites to precisely pinpoint where you are, U.S. air traffic controllers have to use World War II-era radar to check where airplanes are heading. Then, controllers write on a paper strip (yes, an actual piece of paper) all the information related to the flight. When the flight is handed over to another controller, the paper strip is handed over as well.

The FAA wants to modernize this process by implementing a multi-year, multi-billion dollar program called NextGen. More precise than radar, this satellite-based system would allow planes to fly more direct flights and closer together, increasing capacity and saving fuel. It is not getting done swiftly because federal regulations regarding procurement and budget stifle innovation, and complicate the life of the FAA in deploying new technologies.

As an example, last year, the FAA replaced its 1970s computers with a new system. That replacement process started in the early 1980s, and it took them more than 30 years to finish the process. After all this time, we ended up with a system that is already outdated compared to our peers, like Canada’s NAV CANADA.

Congress should follow the international trend to spin-off air traffic control from the government and into an independent entity, as we at Eno recommended last year. This year, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., proposed a bill (the AIRR Act) to do just that.

With this model, which has been a success in Canada for the last 20 years, instead of a government bureaucracy providing air traffic control, a nonprofit company would do it. This company would be governed by a set of aviation stakeholders – think air traffic controllers unions, airlines’ trade associations and general aviation interests – along with the federal government.

This set of stakeholders would work to keep the system running safely, efficiently and cost-effectively. (No one has an interest in paying more than they should to use air traffic control.) The federal government would be involved by both having a presence in the governance of the company and by remaining the safety regulator to ensure that the aviation industry’s stellar safety record is maintained.

The deadline for action is July 15 when the current law authorizing the FAA expires. Although no one can tell you how to make those TSA lines shorter, we do know that after you pass through security, there is a better way to handle air traffic control. And it starts with creating an air traffic control system that is capable of upgrading to 21st century technology.

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