For Washington cynics, the new Congress means more of an old problem – political gridlock. But perhaps cynics need to focus on another kind of gridlock – aviation gridlock – as a way to solve not only the quagmire of Washington, but also drive economic development and end the frustrations of millions of passengers.
Air traffic delays cost the nation billions of dollars every year and passengers valuable time – but if we act now and make the nation’s aviation system a priority by passing a comprehensive and smart Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization this year, we can take the first steps toward reducing delays and fostering growth.
To their credit, House Republicans are saying all of the right things – at least when it comes to working together on aviation issues. Before even the end of the 2014 session, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa) had already asked for a hearing to go over the details of the 2015 reauthorization bill.
And President Obama cited exactly the right reason to find common ground – growing the economy; “I want to talk to leadership about how we can keep the progress that we’re seeing going, particularly in our economy.”
However, as both Washington Republicans and Democrats know well, words are cheap. So here is a reasonable flight path to keep our political system as it relates to aviation moving forward:
· Use NY-NJ to fully implement NextGen. We have better GPS technology on our smart phones than we do in our planes, which means traffic jams in the sky and chronic delays on the ground. And in high traffic areas like New York, delays have a “ripple effect,” with one-half to three-quarters of all delays nationwide originating in our airspace. We suggest Congress use the nation’s busiest airspace, the NY-NJ area, as a proving ground for a nationwide GPS-based Air Traffic Control system. Because prioritizing NextGen here is critical to relieving air traffic congestion everywhere else.
· Direct federal airport improvement grants to projects of the greatest national interest. Today, 35 percent of national airport improvement grants-- $1.35 billion a year -- go to airports which account for .25% of all passengers. That delays passengers across the country – regardless of political affiliation. Grants should be better directed at airports of national significance.
· Create a new federal grant program to reward improvement and innovation in airports. Initiatives using discretionary funds to reward new ideas work are already in place for rail and federal highway projects. We should introduce these to the aviation industry as an effective way to incentivize fresh ideas and encourage investment in local infrastructure.
· Increase capacity by lifting or increasing “temporary” flight caps at affected airports. Flight caps, in place at only 4 airports nationwide, including all of New York’s main hubs, were designed as temporary measures to reduce delays in 2007 but have been repeatedly extended ever since, even though they haven’t reduced congestion or delays. Instead, the restrictions have artificially capped capacity and reduced competition between airlines. The current slots, which limit flights to 81 per hour at JFK and Newark, and 75 at LaGuardia, need to be removed or significantly increased.
· Allow airports to apply for individual Passenger Facility Charge increases to fund investments. The capacity of the national aviation system is growing, but the system needs to grow with it. PFCs have not increased since the 1990s, leaving much-needed improvement projects across the country without adequate funding. Furthermore, studies have shown an increase in the charge would not deter passengers from flying, making it a natural solution to the underinvestment issue.
Smart investments into the nation’s aviation system unleash business and economic growth – something both parties say they want. But just as important, they could also ease the concerns of millions of passengers who feel stuck in the middle seat between two cynical, bickering parties.
Sitt is founder of the Global Gateway Alliance.