America needs modern air traffic control systems

The United States is the birthplace of modern aviation. Ever since the Wright brothers first soared over the sands at Kitty Hawk, we’ve led the world in safely and efficiently moving people and goods by air.

Today, we have the busiest aviation system in the world. Fifty million flights and 800 million passengers traverse our skies every year. In the next decade or so, our system is expected to be moving one billion passengers annually.

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The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working on major legislation that benefits those hundreds of millions of consumers, and ensures the system works for the growing number of passengers for years to come.

It’s a significant challenge to effectively move so many people, as evidenced by delays in the system. Over the last 10 years, air traffic control delays have gotten longer at 13 of our 20 largest airports. At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, for example, the length of air traffic control-related delays has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2004. That’s a problem for passengers using JFK, but this isn’t simply a New York problem. One-third of all U.S. flights are directly affected by delays in the New York area; congestion in one place can have a dramatic ripple effect throughout the system. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), aviation delays cost passengers nearly $17 billion every year.

As the number of passengers grows over the coming years, Americans stand to lose more time and money to delays.

The problem is that our air traffic control system, already straining to handle present levels, is not built to accommodate future capacity. The system is based primarily on World War II-era radar technology. If this conjures in your mind blips on a black and white cathode-ray tube monitor, technology still used in many FAA facilities, you’ve got the idea. The GPS navigation systems in your car and smartphone are more sophisticated than our air traffic control system.

Imagine if our Interstate Highway System, also established more than a half-century ago, was required to handle today’s traffic levels with the same roads and bridges from the 1950s. Our highways would be at a standstill. The more we burden our antiquated air traffic control system with greater numbers of passengers and operations, the closer we will come to gridlock in the skies.

We recognized the need to modernize our aging system decades ago, and the FAA has been working on some form of modernization since 1981. The FAA’s most recent modernization initiative, NextGen, is entering its second decade, but despite over $6 billion in taxpayer dollars spent, passengers, general aviation and airlines have yet to realize any significant operational benefits. Cost and timetable estimates for modernization continue to escalate. Last year, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general warned that NextGen implementation costs for government and industry — initially estimated at $20 billion each — could double or even triple, while taking an additional decade.

As a result of these delays and cost increases, many stakeholders in the aviation community, partners critical to successful modernization, have lost confidence in FAA’s ability to reach the goal. Only five of 76 aviation stakeholders interviewed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office now believe the agency is capable of implementing NextGen.

U.S. efforts to modernize this economically vital component of our infrastructure have been an abject failure. The FAA is a vast bureaucracy of 46,000 employees, three-fourths of whom are involved in operating the air traffic system. Between 1996 and 2014, when air traffic levels actually dropped 20 percent, the FAA’s budget nearly doubled. Taxpayers are now paying nearly twice as much for the agency to handle less work.

To be fair, the agency has had to answer to many masters: the FAA administrator, the secretary of Transportation, the Office of Management and Budget, Congress. Agency funding is also inconsistent, subject to unpredictable federal budget cycles and occasional shutdowns.

While Congress has tried on previous occasions to reform the FAA, now that passenger levels are rising again, it’s time to recognize that this massive bureaucracy is not organized to properly manage modernization.

The time for half-measures is over. Without bold action now, things will only get worse for passengers, shippers, general aviation operators, and airlines. The system will become even less efficient and reliable, passengers will experience longer delays and more cancellations, packages will be delivered later and at higher costs to customers and shippers, airlines will burn more fuel and emit more emissions unnecessarily, and billions of additional taxpayer dollars will be wasted on yet another failed air traffic control modernization initiative.

Things will also get worse for one of the pillars of our economy. One out of every 12 U.S. jobs is supported by aviation, which constitutes over 5 percent of our gross national product. If we cannot lay the groundwork for the future of our aviation system, we risk losing what we’ve gained since the Wright brothers’ first flight, and many of those jobs could relocate to other countries that are more adept at innovation.

For these reasons, a transformative aviation bill is one of the highest priorities of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this year.

Shuster has represented Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District since 2001. He is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and also sits on the Armed Services Committee.