America needs a modern air traffic control system

It is time to let the flying public in on changes needed for our air traffic control system. Our nation’s current air traffic control (ATC) system is operating on technology from the 1960s. Aging radars still slowly sweep to determine location of aircraft. Controllers use scraps of paper to keep track of planes. And, aircraft radios still use old-fashion knobs and dials.

air traffic controlThe country is spending far more than necessary for fuel because of the age-old way planes are routed across the country. In some cases, they fly, zig-zagging along corridors that were created when bonfires were lit to let pilots see the next destination on a cross-country journey. Only a few years ago the air traffic controllers were sourcing vacuum tubes from the Czech Republic because no company in the USA manufactured them.

In a recent book, Pinpoint by Greg Milner, the author quotes Charlie Trimble, one of the pioneers of Global Positioning System (GPS), “The FAA fulfills its mission by wrapping policies and procedures around obsolete technologies.”

It is time to enter the 21st Century. Enough with the obsolete.

The new air traffic control system will benefit everyone. However, the American public knows very little about this project and doesn’t care because it doesn’t understand how much it is costing them in safety terms and in money. Plus, the public believes that our transportation network is working on state-of-the-art technology. However, there can be nothing further from the truth.

Airlines and the FAA need to begin educating travelers about the tangible benefits to modernizing the ATC system. Technology that the American public takes for granted and holds in its hands, in cell phones and GPS systems, is not available to our pilots and air traffic controllers. The USA, once at the forefront of technology, is falling behind other nations when it comes to airspace management.

The problem is not money, but FAA leadership and organization
Surprisingly, the problem with the implementation of NextGen, the term the FAA applies to their program to modernize the ATC, is not money. Congress has actually been generous with funding. Plus, this is a bipartisan issue — both Democrats and Republicans have ponied up billions of dollars to upgrade the system.

The problem is leadership within the FAA, where dozens of departments are studying every aspect of the project but not moving forward. This administration of regulators regulating regulators has virtually no mission orientation other than in platitudes written in their proclamations. And, the drifting FAA bureaucracy, unlike the legendary NASA focus on innovation, is hindered further by a funding system that subjects our air traffic finances to the whims of Congressional bickering and an uncertain budgetary process.

In addition, there has been little encouragement from the administration or from the American public to get this important infrastructure project moving despite the fact that a significant slice of the American economy depends on aviation for everything from just-­in-­time inventories to travel and tourism.

Airlines speak with avionics companies, plane makers discuss mysterious acronyms like ADS­B and RNP implementation benefits. The FAA debates the issue with controllers. No one speaks to the consumers, the public, or the taxpayers who ultimately are footing the bill and will ultimately be enjoying the benefits.

It is time to speak to the taxpayers
The ATC project is the largest national infrastructure project since the development of the Interstate Highway System; its economic impact can be just as, if not more, significant. Travelers United believes that now is the time to speak the language of the common man and broadcast the ultimate benefits of modernizing our ATC to the American public, whether they fly or not.

Plain talk about the needs for a new, modern ATC is needed to educate the public about how the ATC system can be improved. Consumers understand saving money, creating a better environment, more efficient use of resources, and embracing technology. A concerted program will, by extension, educate politicians and our leadership that the public is awakening to the billions of dollars of benefits that are not being realized.
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