Our World War II-era aviation systems aren't ready for the drone era

Our World War II-era aviation systems aren't ready for the drone era
© Getty

Imagine the operational challenges of helping to oversee and manage more than 16 million flights in a year, or 44,000 flights a day. To make things even more complicated, ponder that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is charged with handling 5,000 aircraft flying at any one time from some 19,622 airports around the country.

Now consider that the FAA is responsible for 5.3 million square miles of domestic air space and is using World War II-era technology of ground-based radar to keep the 2.5 million people a day who travel safe. While we can track a drug dealer on the corner of Fifth and Main using a satellite tracking system, we are using technology that is more than 70 years old to track a commercial airliner in the 21st Century. 

For the most part, the world was unaware of this until Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March of 2014, and we soon learned that we had no way of tracking the aircraft because it was beyond our radar’s capability.  

The demand for air travel worldwide is expected to double in the next 15 years, which means we must create and operate the most technologically complex air traffic control systems on the planet.The NextGen program will allow us to do just that, but a lack of funding has prevented it.

Using ground-based radar technology will not allow us to stay ahead of the growth of commercial aviation, nor will it allow us to properly manage critical airspace with the millions of commercial and private drones that are expected to take to the skies. Also, companies such as Uber and Boeing are developing and testing unmanned air taxis, which will also soon populate our skies.

When we consider the positive impact commercial aviation plays in our nation’s economy, everything possible needs to be done to invest in the future of air travel. Yet, in February 2019, why did Congress approve a reduction of the FAA’s budget by $549 million? If anything, the budget should be increased as we invest in the future of aviation management.

It is in our best interests for Congress to work with President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE and his FAA administrator, Captain Steve Dickson, to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). NextGen is the FAA’s solution to modernizing air traffic control systems operation. This new set of standards would allow for air travel technology to be brought up to speed after decades of falling behind. It would also prepare us for the rapidly evolving future.

In 2016, Dickson wrote that “the FAA, in collaboration with industry stakeholders, is making solid progress introducing new systems and improving the performance of the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system. New operational capabilities are being introduced systematically as part of the NextGen program, which is driving the evolution of U.S. airspace into a more modern and reliable system.”

I believe we must heed the director’s words and increase funding for the implementation of NextGen. Let’s allocate enough money to reclaim our position as a leader in world aviation. Setting tangible goals for an updated system will result in fewer costly delays and less opportunities for human error that put passengers at risk.


America has crucial infrastructure needs, but few are as pressing as this. We need to move into the future with a plan, or flight delays will be the least of our worries.

Luckily, there is a solution. We just have to fund it.

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.