Congress is in the midst of a debate on how to best manage air traffic control services, and whether the traditional government role should change to a privately run system governed by a board of directors. It is an important matter but regardless of the direction Congress heads, it needs to ensure steady, long-term investment in air traffic modernization.

Without this investment, the significant and important modernization gains will be threatened, subjecting passengers to unnecessary delays and sustaining aviation operations that are less environmentally friendly.

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Every year, U.S. airlines take travelers on 8.5 million flights. Behind the scenes, each of these flights is guided safely to its destination using complex technology that lets pilots, air traffic controllers, the Department of Defense, and airports communicate. Harris is proud to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in developing and implementing new technology to make air service faster, more efficient, and safer. 

During the last FAA reauthorization debate, there were 23 short-term reauthorizations, some as short as a day. The agency was also shut down for two weeks during a Congressional food fight in 2011, and a government-wide shutdown for another two weeks in 2013 further hampered operations. During the current FAA reauthorization debate, there has already been another six month extension passed, which expires in March. Despite those hurdles, the under-appreciated success of NextGen programs speaks for itself.

New GPS-style navigation stations called ADS-B have now been installed at 663 sites, with dozens more scheduled for installation in the next two years. ADS-B provides pinpoint accuracy, so aircraft can take faster, more fuel efficient routes from start to finish. We have also begun modernizing the way pilots and air traffic controllers talk to one another, using text communications (called DataComm) instead of outdated voice systems. DataComm will is streamline important navigation instructions, reducing confusion and radio congestion. Finally, procedures to quickly and automatically move air traffic to the most efficient routes are now being implemented.

In the last year these real accomplishments are delivering benefits to travelers. If the proposal by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) becomes law, a new private corporation run by a board of directors would have decision making authority over investments. Shuster’s proposal is not completely clear on what happens to existing NextGen programs, and without improved clarity, modernization will continue to move forward under the shadow of uncertainty.

NextGen programs are working today and they will continue to work whether it’s under FAA guidance or a private board of directors. While changes are needed to the air traffic control system, we urge Congress to ensure that any proposal provides certainty for NextGen so that past gains do not become future losses.

Sayadian is president of Mission Networks at Harris Corporation, a leading provider of Air Traffic Management technology solutions for the FAA and their associated NextGen transformation.