Given the choice between flying across the country in an airplane built in the 1940s and a modern, 21st century aircraft, most travelers likely would choose the latter. But every day, U.S. flyers rely on flight crews and air traffic controllers using World War II-era technology. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been using radar guidance since the 1940s and has not completed the upgrade to modern satellite-based technology.

The good news is that the FAA and the Congress currently have the perfect opportunity to make the changes needed to create a new, modern satellite based air traffic control system. The reauthorization of the FAA is due by September of this year (the end of the current fiscal year) and it presents a golden opportunity to accelerate the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (better known as NextGen).

Unfortunately, the FAA’s current governance structure and recent budget battles in Congress have created roadblocks for the expedient implementation of NextGen.


In an effort to help get this essential air traffic control modernization program moving faster, we joined with the non-profit Eno Center for Transportation to create a Working Group that could develop an approach to reforming our Air Traffic Control (ATC) structure. Over the past two years we have been Co-Chairs of the Working Group, which is comprised of a wide variety of air transportation experts and stakeholders who have a common interest in moving our country forward in developing a new, modern air traffic control system. Academics, former government officials, unions, and industry leaders representing airlines, airports, manufacturers, private operators, pilots, controllers, and the business community have been overseeing research, evaluating past attempts at reform, exploring successful ATC models in other countries, and considering fundamental changes both to financing and governance structures in the interest of keeping up with essential advancements in technology.

The group agrees that our current governance and funding structure is problematic. The existing governance structure mixes the operational (ATC) and regulatory (the rest of FAA) sides of aviation in a way that generally is recognized around the world as a conflict of interest and hinders the rapid acquisition of new technology. The existing funding structure is a hodge-podge of taxes and fees that often are hidden, confusing, and unrelated to the actual use of the system. It also is subject to the whims of Congress, meaning that if political battles force budget cuts, sequestration or a government shutdown, the operation of our ATC system and progress in modernization is negatively affected.

Now is the time to talk about real and pragmatic reform of the ATC system. We have released our first public document – a Statement of Principles - designed to give lawmakers a workable starting point as they aim to modernize the nation’s ATC system in the FAA legislation. Our ten principles address a wide range of priorities, including protecting the diversity of airspace users, ensuring a consistent and reliable means of funding air traffic control operation and modernization, reforming procurement procedures, and ensuring that users and stakeholders play a primary role in the governance of the system. The principles make it clear that the aviation community has come together behind the concept of restructuring our ATC operations in order to create an ATC organization that has a self-sustaining, consistent, and predictable revenue stream. A new structure that would enable the new organization to bond against future revenues, in order to accelerate essential technological upgrades, would create opportunities for modernization that do not currently exist.

As Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a recent FAA Reauthorization hearing (3/3/15), “We need to talk about what other countries have done to successfully increase the efficiency of their air traffic control systems and separate them from the political processes that have created instability in our own system. We need to act now to modernize our ATC system and streamline our regulatory processes if we want to remain world leaders in aviation.” Eno’s NextGen Working Group has been having this exact conversation since July 2013 and we have crafted a consensus blueprint for a viable way forward. We encourage Congress to take note.

We firmly believe reform of our air traffic control governance and funding structure is long overdue. To continue to improve safety, upgrade technology and increase efficiency for passengers and the aviation community in a cost effective way, we need a new plan. Both the 2013 budget sequestration and government shutdown exposed the true vulnerability of our nation’s air traffic control operations. We need real reform that would provide consistent, uninterrupted funding for the NextGen system, not only in managing day-to-day operations but also in paying for essential upgrades.

Even at a time when excessive partisanship makes it hard to get things done in Washington, DC, the restructuring and modernization of our air traffic control system should be a unifying idea. The health of the aviation industry and our economy depend on modernization. The discussion described by Chairman Shuster is one that can and should lead to major action by the Congress on this issue. The work that the aviation community has done at the Eno Center for Transportation is a good starting point.

Burnley was the 9th U.S. secretary of Transportation, serving from 1987 to 1989 under President Reagan, and is a partner at Venable LLP. Dorgan served in the Senate from 1992 to 2011 and now chairs the Government Relations Practice for the DC law firm Arent Fox.