The US Air Traffic Control System needs a steady source of funding — that’s the demonstrated truth!
The latest shutdown of our government was the longest on record and put America’s fliers in danger. We need to do better as a country. It is time to separate the air traffic controls system funding from the budget process and have those who use the system pay for it.
After the passage of the latest five-year FAA bill, many thought that the question of how to fund that system was laid to rest. However, less than four months after the passage of that landmark bill, the deficiencies in our system are front and center. When there was a political budget crisis there was no funding that could keep a nationwide system operating. Now, Congress will be dragged kicking and screaming into a reevaluation of the system that was just debated to near death over the past year.
For the past five years, Travelers United has been the sole consumer group pushing for more rapid completion of NextGen, air traffic control (ATC) modernization. These NextGen technologies, already identified by the FAA, will save not only billions of dollars for the American public but will make better use of our aviation infrastructure, enhance safety, improve pilot awareness, conserve fuel, and save time.
Even more important is the miserable training program and replacement program for new air traffic controllers. The ATC system now has the lowest number of controllers in the past 30 years. And, according to Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), almost 20 percent of the current controllers are eligible for retirement. They are working with a sense of duty. And even when fully paid, they must work six-day weeks and hours of overtime.
The latest shutdown came to a head last week when the controllers announced they could no longer work safely at La Guardia Airport and stopped take-offs and landings for about half an hour. That was the action that was the last straw. It came after every major organization in the aviation sector, together with Travelers United and the CEOs of every major airline, spoke out in unison about the folly of continuing the shutdown.
President Trump finally realized that the everyday safety of the American public needed to be put before politics. Trump’s action that many claim was surrender to a new Democratic House of Representatives was really a victory for Presidental common sense and a stark realization of the danger that our air transportation system was facing.
Politics has played a part in the operation of our air traffic control system for far too long. During last year’s debates about the most recent FAA funding bill politics were front and center. The modernization of the air traffic control system and reorganization of that ATC system to include steady funding was squandered because of politics.
Plans to move the funding of the ATC system were scuttled by appropriation committee members who did not want to give up their power of the purse and pseudo management of systems beyond their understanding. Plus, the non-NATCA unions fought the system change because it would dilute overall union power within the government. These unions and their supporting politicians put political power over safety and new technology. Never mind that the very people that worked within the system all supported the proposed changes.
The funding of the ATC system was one of two major issues standing in the way of a speed-up of ATC modernization – an FAA focused on regulation rather than a mission of improvement was the other. Without goal-focused leadership and a dependable funding stream, our country has found itself using outdated technology and operating our ATC system with a dangerously low level of trained controllers.
For decades, we have poured tens of billions of dollars into a system that is still operating for the most part using technology from the radar era. New technology is being shut out rather than being the center of improvements. The trust of the American public in our institutions to update the air traffic control systems and install the latest technology has been betrayed.
Painfully, our ATC system still follows routes of bonfires once lit to guide pioneer pilots across the country. Controllers rely on 70-year-old radar technology. The current ATC system has no way to track planes across oceans. It requires zig-zag paths when direct routes are more fuel efficient. Pilot awareness is still limited to line of sight, in most cases. And, traffic jams in the air cost passengers millions of hours of lost time, circling while awaiting landing permission.
The FAA is wrapping more and more regulations around old technology rather than deploying state-of-the-art instrumentation and up-to-date computer technologies. Preserving the old infrastructure is the work of museum curators. An operational platform that controls one of the most vital elements of the world’s leading economy should always be pushing the boundaries of high-tech, safety, and efficiency.
Our nation’s skies are as important to American consumers as our roads, bridges, and rails. No legislation addressing our nation’s infrastructure is complete without including ATC modernization. By pairing ATC modernization with broader infrastructure improvements, Congress and the Trump Administration have an opportunity to bring America’s ATC system into the 21st century in the coming months.
Congress needs to make serious reforms. The focus should be on what is best for all Americans and our economy, not simply on putting Band-Aids on an aging ATC system infrastructure.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.