Don’t get carried away by alternative facts in airspace modernization talks

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White House economic adviser Gary Cohn participated this week in a White House town-hall meeting to discuss infrastructure and other initiatives, and alternative facts were flying.

There is a case to be made that the pace of air traffic control modernization can be accelerated, but the only way for us to have a meaningful discussion is to understand the facts as they exist today. 

Mr. Cohn’s remarks are in italics below.

He begins: “Air traffic control, to me, is probably the single most exciting thing we can do.” 

Here Cohn is addressing a plan to establish an independent, not-for-profit entity to provide air traffic control services, rather than basing this inside the Federal Aviation Administration. While it is exciting to him, it’s worth noting that this is a proposal that has been debated for well over two decades and has yet to be accepted. It is also worth noting that the FAA’s handling of air traffic control receives approval ratings of well over 80 percent from the public.

“Everyone else has done it, so we know it is relatively easy to do … it’s kind of insulting that we are the last to do air traffic control, not the first to do air traffic control.”

Other countries have separated their (much smaller) air traffic control functions from government; these efforts have been carefully studied here in the U.S. One reality is clear: the transition takes years. Given the current achievements and pace of modernization occurring in the U.S., major structural reform now could actually slow the progress we are making — and there’s no guarantee such an effort would create savings.

“[We’re the country] that has Silicon Valley, and all of the technology entrepreneurs that we have, we’re playing catch-up? That’s embarrassing for us.”

{mosads}Let’s not be too embarrassed. The U.S. invented GPS. Ronald Reagan determined in the mid-1980s that it should be available for commercial use, and a few years later, two great technology pioneers (not in Silicon Valley) formed a company called Garmin. In the early 1990s, Garmin technology started being utilized in U.S. aircraft, enabling them to fly point to point.


“We’ve lost control over the skies of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans to Canada because Canada has adopted a GPS-based air traffic control system 10 — 20 years before we did in the United States.”

It appears Cohn here is addressing technologies used by air traffic controllers to locate aircraft. Again, the U.S. has already developed a system, put into place in Alaska to test using aircraft-based GPS information to locate aircraft, thus providing services where standard air traffic control was difficult. We tested it and proved its value.

The system relies on aircraft reporting their GPS information to controllers through a ground-based system of receivers. The capability now exists to capture this information in a satellite-based receiver system, developed by an American company and launched on American satellites. The FAA is working with industry to study how to best utilize the capabilities and at what cost. 

Pilots would much prefer to use a GPS- versus a land-based radar system. We have a land-based radar system in the United States, we have not upgraded to a GPS system in the United States.”

Well, pilots today use ever more sophisticated GPS systems. We use GPS departures. We fly point to point. We use GPS arrival procedures and approach procedures and land using GPS.

“It affects every state in the country multiple times. We have multiple air traffic control systems in multiple states all over the country, so this is a project that touches every part of the country.”

Actually, Mr. Cohn, we have one air traffic control system for the entire country. One of the advantages of the FAA operating this system is that the system meets one standard — that means the procedures used in Boston and New York are the same as the ones in Phoenix, Des Moines and Detroit, along with every other of the over 5,000 public airports used in the U.S. 

“Everyone in the country is affected. … If you fly, we are going to cut flight times down fairly dramatically. We are going to cut the experience down. We are going to cut tarmac time down. We are going to go direct from point to point.”

With projections for more travelers, especially in some of our most crowed areas, this is a huge set of promises. If your proposal is to separate air traffic control from the federal government, Mr. Cohn, it would kind of be out of your control, wouldn’t it?

“For those of you that live in New York, which is almost all of you, I know you have noticed when you go from Boston to New York you fly farther west than you fly farther south. You fly west to fly south. When you go to GPS air traffic control you can fly from point to point.”

A check of a few planned commercial flights between Boston and New York reveals that while the actual direct flight would be 184 miles, the planned flight path is 255 miles. This is not because GPS is unavailable, however; it has to do with the significant amount of air traffic in the busiest area of the country and the techniques used to most efficiently manage the flow of traffic. Providing an aircraft, such as one with a medical emergency, a point-to-point flight path is indeed possible and would save a few minutes, but every other aircraft would be delayed.

“And, the way we fly now, we fly at certain elevations — your plane will drop from 20,000 to 15,000, to 10,000. With GPS, you do continuous decent and continuous rise.”

There are savings in continuous rate decent through altitudes, and aircraft are increasingly provided these with the introduction of new arrivals and approaches. This is one of the priorities of modernization, but it requires equipment and training for controllers and pilots.

“What does that mean? It means we will save over 25 percent of the jet fuel that we consume in this country. If you save 25 percent of the jet fuel you consume in this country, we’ll consume less oil. It means consumers will pay less for oil no matter where they consume it. Whether they consume it as gasoline, the consume it as home heating oil, it doesn’t matter, consumers win.”

I have never seen such a claim and no idea how this could be achieved with any near-term changes.

“This is a project that is so interesting and so enticing, the unions support doing it.”

Careful. Our nation’s controllers play a vital role insuring the safe and efficient flow of traffic in the safest, most complex and largest air transportation system in the world. Like everyone in aviation, they have concerns about interrupted and — at times — inadequate funding to assure modernization of the system. They have pledged to study carefully any proposal developed by the administration, as have other groups. Assuming the support of a plan from the White House that no one has seen is a bit of a stretch. Now would be a great time to share plans and try to build support for proposals the aviation community understands and can embrace. Assuming something not actually stated by any specific group will not build confidence in the approach.

Many in the aviation community look forward to working with the new administration to improve the air transportation system. But, let’s make this a reality-based exercise and recognize the extraordinary work that has been done on modernization by the aviation community, manufacturers and others in the U.S.


Craig Fuller has been a general aviation pilot for four decades. He chairs The Fuller Company and engages in consulting within the aviation community. He served for eight years in the White House during the Reagan/Bush administration.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Air traffic control Gary Cohn GPS NextGen

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