Our nation has no time for delays in fixing our air traffic control system

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Every day more than 27,000 flights and 2.2 million passengers take to the skies in the United States. Unfortunately, America’s air travelers are far too often confronted with delays, cancellations, and needlessly long and inefficient flight paths that are a direct result of our outdated air traffic control system. In fact, today’s air traffic control system is responsible for almost 50 percent of flight delays each year.

There was a time when the U.S. was the gold standard in every aspect of air traffic control. Our days of global leadership, regrettably, are gone. We no longer have the most modern equipment and the most efficient airline routings. Our most essential facilities are more than 50 years old. We’re still managing flight traffic with the same ground-based radar system and paper strips used during World War II. America is better than this.

{mosads}Further, the accumulated effects of budget unpredictability and a government procurement process have slowed progress on implementing next-generation technologies. Our broken government structure stands in the way of procuring the best equipment for our nation’s air traffic controllers and properly staffing our air traffic control facilities. In fact, we are at the lowest level of fully-qualified controllers in 28 years.


All stakeholders — including commercial, business and general aviation operators, passengers, and labor — have been negatively impacted by the stops and starts of the federal budget process. No one wins when the system suffers from more delays, more cancellations, more indirect routes and more fuel burn.

While we continue the debate, more than 50 other nations have already reformed their air traffic control systems and have started reaping the benefits. One of the most fundamental changes we can implement is separating the safety regulator from the service provider, an inherent conflict in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current broken structure. Other countries that have instituted this change have seen enhanced safety metrics.

Our nation’s air traffic control system should not be treated like a political football that is subjected to turf battles and the annual budgeting process. We need to stop pretending that government is best suited to manage a 24/7 high-technology enterprise like our air traffic control system.

While America’s air traffic control system is the world’s largest and safest, we need to address the fact that our air traffic infrastructure and technology have fallen behind, and until we fix the structure around the system, we won’t see progress. Our cars and smartphones use superior satellite-based navigational technology, while our pilots and planes are stuck relying on technology better suited for museums than as the backbone of today’s aviation infrastructure.

Attempts to reform our air traffic control system have been made under both Democratic and Republican administrations in the last 20 years. Each and every time, these attempts have been stalled by entrenched interests who want to maintain the status quo. It’s long past time we have a reliable, robust 21st century system that ensures access for all users — preserving and expanding services for all communities, large and small.

Congress has an opportunity to strengthen the FAA’s role in ensuring the safety of our system while moving the operation and funding of air traffic control to a federally chartered, non-profit organization that would be governed and funded by the stakeholders and users of our nation’s aviation system. Only by taking this step will the United States be able to regain our global leadership and pave a way forward that enhances safety, improves efficiency and accommodates the growing demand for air services.

Reforming our air traffic control system has been delayed for far too long, and it’s evident to air travelers every time they fly. The stress on our system will continue to intensify as the scale of air travel expands beyond its already record numbers.

We owe the American consumer a better travel experience with fewer delays and cancellations. Reforming air traffic control is at the heart of this aspiration. There will be those who say change is too difficult, but don’t let the status quo stand in the way of progress. No great transformation in America has come without innovative ideas and hard work. We cannot continue to pretend we don’t have a problem. The time is now.

Norman Mineta is founder of the Mineta Transportation Institute. He served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 2000 to 2001 during the Clinton administration and as U.S. Secretary of Transportation from 2001 to 2006 during the Bush administration.

James Burnley is a partner at Venable, which represents American Airlines. He served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation from 1987 to 1989 during the Reagan administration.

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

Tags Air traffic control Airlines Aviation Federal Aviation Administration Government Transportation travel United States

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