We have all been on a plane and heard the pilot tell us we can’t take off because of an air traffic control (ATC) delay. For example, one in six passengers flying through Hartsfield-Jackson is likely to have a flight delay. It's really a shame that we grudgingly accept this as a regular feature of air travel, and even more surprising that the largest carrier at Hartsfield thinks the status quo is fine for our ATC system.

The status quo is not acceptable.


Many in Congress recognize the problem and now have a sound proposed solution in front of them from U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act would end business as usual and bring about real reform of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Passengers deserve better results, especially at an airport like in Atlanta, which recently became the first to serve 100 million passengers in a single year. That’s a considerable accomplishment, but also a reminder that air traffic controllers are busier today keeping our skies safe using technology that is often older than they are. In fact, the software that runs the cash register at the newsstand in the airport is probably more up-to-date than the radar and navigation systems we provide to the air traffic controllers who manage all the planes in the sky above us.

That’s what happens when we’re forced to live with an antiquated air traffic control (ATC) system, run by Congressional budgeting practices and subject to the political winds in Washington. Furthermore, a recent report from the federal Department of Transportation’s Inspector General criticized the FAA and managers at the Atlanta ATC center for not being able to reach agreement on how many controllers are needed to properly staff the tower at all times. Relying on noncertified trainees and overtime when budgets are already at a breaking point does not represent the best practices the industry and passengers expect.

Much of the rest of the world has found a better way. Two decades ago, Canada moved to a not-for-profit air traffic control corporation that handled daily operations, while the government itself retained leadership for vital safety issues. Many other nations have successfully followed this well-considered model.

The AIRR Act would create a similar structure for American air travel. Governed by representatives of all stakeholders, this not-for-profit would take into account the many needs of those who rely on ATC to transport people and products around the world. The airlines, labor unions, government regulators, and general aviation would all have seats at the table.

Technology would improve as a result of a reliable financing structure that can’t become a political football during perennial budget battles. Transparent user fees would fund important technology improvements and support the daily operations of air traffic control nationwide.

Most of us take air travel and shipping for granted. We show up at the airport, get on the plane, and end up landing safely at our destination. Or, our package arrives a day after we placed an order. Few of us ever consider the communication between the pilot and the air traffic controllers who help planes navigate the thicket of the skies.

Any disruption or inefficiency in the system gets felt by millions of Americans.

We have the safest skies in the world, but they are not as efficient as they could be. Not only do we rely on antiquated technology, but we’re also facing a looming crisis as staffing becomes a major issue. Currently, about one-third of the 11,000 certified air traffic controllers can choose to retire at any time. Without any other changes, that’s hardly a recipe for success as the demands on air travel continue to increase.

We need to ensure that safe, affordable, and reliable air travel can continue to serve as the backbone of the American and global economies. We should assure passengers at Hartsfield and beyond that we have an ATC infrastructure that will make this goal a reality.

Congress must pass the AIRR Act so that we can reclaim our mantle of global leadership in the skies. Without a modernized ATC system, we will continue to find ourselves in this same place five, 10, 15 years down the road. That is unacceptable, and opponents are relying on a fear of change to spread misinformation about these important reforms.

Burnley served as secretary of Transportation for President Ronald Reagan and is currently an adviser for American Airlines.