America’s outdated aviation system deserves better than radar blips
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America’s infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, and to remain globally competitive, we must modernize this system using 21st century technology. A clear example is our aviation system.

While our aviation system remains safe, delays cost consumers and the economy over $30 billion every year. With annual passenger levels approaching 1 billion and nearly three-fourths of our top 30 airports expected to soon experience Thanksgiving-level traffic once per week, this cost will grow unless we do something.


Our current air traffic control technology is a dinosaur compared to other countries’ systems. American air traffic controllers use WWII-era radar technology as the backbone of our system to manage the most congested airspace in the world. While other nations deploy 21st century technology to move planes with tremendous efficiency, our system is stuck in the sluggish bureaucracy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the cumbersome federal budget and procurement processes. 

In today’s digital age, our controllers still track planes with radar blips and paper strips. We literally ask these professionals to use little pieces of paper to move more than 700 million passengers a year. Our controllers are the best in the world, so why shouldn’t we give them the best technology in the world to do their jobs?

Transformational reform of the FAA’s structure and programs is the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s highest priority and one of the most important reform efforts Congress can pass this session.

Our proposal will shift air traffic control out of the government and establish a fully independent, not-for-profit corporation — essentially a co-op — to operate and modernize this technology service. The committee’s FAA reform proposal will give the average American flier a safe and more efficient aviation system, getting government out of the way to use 21st century technology and ensure more on-time departures, more direct routes and less wasted time on the tarmac.

It is important to remember that this not-for-profit service provider, along with every single aspect of the aviation system, will be regulated by the Department of Transportation and the FAA and overseen by Congress. This is a proposal that has shown real world success, with over 60 countries having separated their air traffic control service from their regulator. According to overwhelming evidence from government and independent studies, the benefits to the system and passengers include better performance in safety, modernization, service quality, cost and financial stability. In Canada alone, the service costs are 30 percent lower now under their not-for-profit model compared to costs under the government 20 years ago. This remarkable record is what can result when we no longer expect a federal bureaucracy to act like a high-tech business.

In the United States, the FAA is well into its fourth decade of failed technology modernization programs. The latest, NextGen, boasts reams of oversight reports cataloging a budget-busting lack of progress and years of delays. The Department of Transportation inspector general testified that this program, initially estimated to cost $40 billion, will likely see that figure double or triple, with a decade of additional delay. We are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars while ignoring the simple fact that the status quo is not working.

In no other mode of American transportation does the safety regulator also serve as the service provider. The committee believes this is an inherent conflict of interest and is a major reason for this good government proposal.

The committee’s proposal will refocus the FAA on its core mission as the nation’s aviation safety regulator.

Another key part of refocusing the agency on safety is reforming the FAA certification and safety oversight processes.

The FAA is responsible for ensuring that all aircraft, their components and any new aviation technologies meet specific safety standards. This responsibility exists during all phases of a product’s life — product development, manufacturing, operation and maintenance.

While the FAA has long had the authority to delegate certification tasks to certain people or organizations, including American manufacturers, this authority is not always fully utilized. Additionally, in a bureaucracy like the FAA, certification approvals and regulatory compliance can take months and regulations can be inconsistently applied — resulting in long delays in bringing aviation products and services to market. 

Our proposal will streamline the certification process to ensure that American companies can compete in the global economy, get their products to the marketplace faster and continue to lead the world in aviation. It also guarantees that the FAA remains the worldwide gold standard in safety. 

As the committee works to reform and modernize our aviation policies and FAA programs, we will at all times ensure that the benefits of reforms extend to all users of the system. 

That includes making sure that general aviation continues to be a vital part of American aviation, strengthening connections to the aviation network for rural and small communities, and giving these constituencies a strong voice in decisions that affect their service.

By bringing our aviation system into the 21st century, we can keep America the world leader in an industry we pioneered and make sure that all Americans who fly benefit from safe, efficient and world-class aviation technology.

Shuster is chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.