5 Things You Need to Know about Air Traffic Control Reform

For over fifty years, the airplanes flying across the U.S. have been guided by World War II era, ground-based radar, though much better technology is available.

I Co-Chaired a project at the Eno Transportation Institute studying how we can accelerate the move to modern, air traffic navigation called NextGen. We concluded that the best approach is to create a federally chartered, not-for profit organization to manage a new, modern U.S. air traffic control system just as many other countries do today.

That recommendation has spun up a controversy from those who seem always to oppose change.

Three decades in Congress teaches you a thing or two, particularly how to distinguish substance from spin. And the current debate over Air Traffic Control (ATC) reform will test even the savviest policymaker, as a small group of interests wedded to the status quo have been busy spinning tall tales about the proposal. Fortunately, misinformation can be cured with clear facts.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill will arrive in the new year, and lawmakers deserve a clear picture of what ATC reform really means. Getting this right will advance U.S. leadership in aviation while making the safest air travel system in the world even better: more choices, more direct trips, lower fuel consumption and reduced air emissions.

Here are five things lawmakers need to know:

1. This is not privatization. Anyone arguing that ATC reform is about “privatizing” or creating a “profit-making” enterprise doesn’t understand the issue or doesn’t want you to understand it. The proposal is to establish a federally chartered, non-profit organization representing all stakeholders, including the federal government. The fees collected to run this system would reflect the costs to operate, maintain and improve it.

2. The world’s safest air traffic system would only improve. Moving from a ground-based radar system to new GPS technology builds on an already safe system and creates added margins of safety. Today, the FAA essentially oversees itself, and accountability suffers because of it. Separating the ATC service provision from safety oversight is an international best practice and would improve accountability through independent oversight.

3. Today’s ATC funding and governance system is broken. A modern ATC system must be funded reliably so that safety, efficiency and modernization are not compromised. A system saddled with recurring funding uncertainty puts 5 percent of the U.S. economy, about 580,000 workers and nearly 27,000 flights a day at risk of disruption. Today’s ATC falls victim to government-wide budget reductions and shutdowns that have resulted in massive flight delays and stalled work on NextGen, a 21st century GPS satellite-based system that will improve air travel dramatically.

4. Independence would strengthen the new ATC system. The new Air Traffic Organization would be governed by a stakeholder board that would also be accountable to all users of the system. Directors would have a fiduciary responsibility to the new ATC organization and be prohibited from financial or employment ties to any stakeholder. This would create a transparent and independent form of oversight and should put to rest the concerns of opponents who say the new governance structure would give way to “special interests.” The federal government, labor unions and general aviation would appoint directors and have a seat at the table.

5. NextGen needs a new path forward: Though America’s ATC system is second to none, the technology driving it is still stuck in the 1950s. NextGen is starting to change that albeit in fits and starts. Some argue that changing the current funding and governance structure would hinder its progress — that’s just nonsense! It is today’s system that has hampered a more timely and effective implementation of NextGen. It is telling that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has a substantial stake in this debate, agrees the current status does not work. ATC reform would accelerate the progress in implementing NextGen with a more reliable source of funding while creating incentives to deliver projects on time and on budget.

Change is hard, but new technology offers us transformative opportunities to modernize our air traffic control organization in the United States. We should seize this opportunity to do the right thing!

Byron Dorgan is a former U.S. Senator, and former Chairman of the Senate Aviation Panel. He Co-Chaired the ATC Reform project at the ENO Institute. After completing his work at ENO, he was retained by American Airlines to advise it on this subject.