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The sky’s the limit: It’s time to modernize air traffic control

Elaine Chao OpEd
Thought Leader: Elaine Chao
September 6, 2023
Source: The Hill

Air travel this summer has been a nightmare for millions across the country. Delays and cancellations feel increasingly commonplace and a host of high-profile incidents are casting a shadow of doubt over the reliability and performance of America’s air transportation network.

Earlier this year, U.S. airspace was abruptly suspended for nearly three hours due to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) computer system failure, disrupting thousands of flights and costing the economy hundreds of millions of dollars. In February, a FedEx cargo jet nearly collided with a Southwest Airlines flight departing from Austin; days later, an American Airlines jet almost hit an Air Canada plane in Florida.

These incidents and the rash of frustrating delays are shedding light on underlying deficiencies with our air traffic control (ATC) system, which is responsible for coordinating the movement of every airplane in U.S. airspace.

The good news is that the traveling public does not have to put up with these annual disruptions. There is a solution. We can improve safety, reduce delays and streamline air travel in America by liberating the air traffic control system (ATC) from the FAA, a fundamental reform that frees the ATC from the troublesome government bureaucracy that impedes its modernization.

America’s current air traffic control system is in desperate need of modernization. As currently configured, it cannot keep up with the needs of a 21st century economy that relies on efficient and reliabe air travel.

The agency’s primary system for preventing collisions between planes and vehicles on the ground is woefully outdated and susceptible to technical and human errors. It often struggles to hire and maintain crucial staff. And, while most Americans can access GPS with a few taps on their smartphones, ATC still relies on outdated surveillance technology and decades-old manual paper tracking to direct flights.

Originally designed when only 100,000 people flew annually, ATC now oversees approximately a billion passengers each year. Its failure to keep up potentially jeopardizes passenger safety and leads to bottlenecks and delays, costing the U.S. economy more than $20 billion annually.

The system is safe due to the skill and experience of the thousands of air traffic controllers who know their system and how to make it work despite its deficiencies. But they deserve help.

Despite decades of discussion and billions invested in upgrades, little progress has been made. Having served as U.S. secretary of Transportation, I believe that the heart of the problem lies in the structure and control of the FAA, the federal government agency charged with overseeing and managing air traffic control.

The FAA is simply not suited to serve both as a safety regulator and a provider of air traffic services. Despite repeated efforts to tackle the problem, it remains bogged down in bureaucratic red tape, lengthy procurement processes and operational inefficiencies, and shackled to a federal budget process consistently fraught with politics and uncertainties. In fact, the Government Accountability Office looked at the issue in 2015 and found that budget uncertainty is a fundamental factor contributing to the FAA’s slow pace of modernization.

And with the FAA’s workload predicted to surge by 80 percent over the next two decades, the issues will only worsen unless addressed.

Thankfully, there is a solution: The United States should liberate the air traffic control system from the FAA and establish the responsibility for managing air traffic control to a not-for-profit corporation, run by a board of representatives elected from users of the system. This entity would finance itself through user fees like it currently does, providing the budget certainty and flexibility needed to complete modernization initiatives without continuous delays and postponements. ATC would still report to Congress and adhere to current safety regulations, while the FAA could focus solely on its regulatory role.

This is far from a novel approach. Dozens of nations have successfully instituted similar reforms. Canada, for instance, established air traffic control responsibilities to a private, nonprofit called NAV Canada in 1996. In the intervening years, NAV Canada has managed to adopt cutting-edge technology, cut costs, improve safety and handle substantially more air traffic.

There was a serious proposal in Congress during the last administration to separate air traffic control from the FAA in a way that closely replicates the Canadian approach. Regrettably, the bill never came up for a vote.

But now, with Congress currently considering legislation to reauthorize and fund the FAA, leaders on both sides of the aisle have an opportunity to work together to institute these long overdue reforms to our ATC system.

The case here is clear. Liberating ATC from the FAA will bolster safety, reduce delays, lower costs and improve convenience for the hundreds of millions of Americans who traverse the skies every year. It is a solution used around the world to modernize air traffic control that would ensure the United States maintains a safe, efficient and responsive civil aviation industry necessary for prosperity in the 21st century.

Elaine Chao was the 18th U.S. secretary of Transportation, 24th U.S. secretary of Labor and the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet.

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