Modernize our skies to improve passenger safety and national security

Modernize our skies to improve passenger safety and national security
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As our skies become more congested, it has become increasingly clear that there is a growing need to modernize our aviation infrastructure.

Last year, airlines moved over 2.7 million passengers every day. In Detroit, automakers are inventing and refining flying cars, and flying taxis are even closer to reality. And as more Americans turn to e-commerce to fulfill their shopping needs, companies like UPS, FedEx and Amazon are testing the use of drones to provide ever-faster merchandise delivery to different parts of America. In short, the skies are filling up and our existing air traffic control (ATC) systems will soon not be able to keep up.

The Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA), the agency responsible for overseeing civil aviation in the United States, has a plan in place but currently lacks the funding necessary to implement its modernization program known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.

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NextGen is not one piece of technology but a series of interconnected systems that will change how air traffic sees, navigates and communicates. A satellite-based location system will tell operators exactly where other aircraft are located. Machine learning and AI will allow for tighter takeoffs and landings. Up-to-date weather information will be transmitted electronically and instantaneously between pilot and air traffic controller, cutting down on delays and allowing real-time changes in flight paths. All of this is being done in an effort to make flying more efficient, more predictable and most importantly, safer.

Pilots and flight attendants stress passenger safety in their remarks to passengers before every flight. But travelers may not be aware of the increasing risks they encounter each day the FAA fails to modernize our air traffic control system. We all take for granted the ability to travel from place to place in the air safely and within hours. That could change, though, if we do not make the proper investments in FAA modernization.

NextGen modernization is more than just an issue of passenger safety and convenience. It also affects national security. Airlines are emerging as a soft target for hackers and other adversaries of the United States. From 2017-2018 there was a 15,000 percent increase in attacks, and U.S. airlines experienced 10 major outages. Our older air traffic control systems lack proper cyber hardening and are also at-risk.

As a former member of the Speaker’s Task Force on Cybersecurity, it was evident when I served 15 years ago that there were aggressive efforts underway to hack crucial government and commercial systems in the United States. The threat has increased exponentially since I left office.

One executive who the task force interviewed even told us that, “There is no system that can’t be hacked — over time.” All systems are vulnerable, but that is especially true for those that aren’t modernized. That’s why it’s critical we retire antiquated national aerospace systems and upgrade to up to date hardware and software.

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So, given that these modernization efforts are so important, where is the funding holdup?

Congress has not treated NextGen modernization with the urgency it should. In fact, the funding bill Congress passed earlier this year cut the FAA’s 2019 budget by $549 million. I’ll chalk it up to President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE and Congress being cautious about spending, since the budget deficit reached almost $1 trillion for FY 2019, but that number doesn’t excuse their collective failure to adequately fund FAA modernization.

For 2020, the FAA is asking for $1.37 billion for the NextGen program. While that may seem like a lot, it is nothing compared to the costs associated with the flying uncertainties our antiquated ATC systems cause. Last year alone, travel delays were estimated to cost passengers, airlines and airports $28 billion. With just a fraction of that money we could cover the entire cost of NextGen modernization and secure our nation’s airspace for the travelers of today and tomorrow. Our elected officials should not drag their feet, the public’s safety and our national security are at stake.

George Nethercutt Jr. is the former Republican Congressman from the 5th District of Washington, and founder and chairman of The George Nethercutt Civics Foundation. He served on the House Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.