By: Colorado Business Roundtable President Jeff Wasde
One year ago nearly 4.4 million passengers flew in and out of Denver International Airport during December. Whether visiting family and friends, traveling for work, or enjoying a ski vacation, most of these people did not give even a moment of thought to air traffic control. And that’s the way it should be.
Denver International Airport is the fifth busiest commercial airport in the United States, with 1,550 daily flights to more than 180 countries. There is a good reason for that: Colorado is home to some of the nation’s leading companies in diverse fields from aerospace to energy to biomedicine; we are also a major tourist destination. However, getting in and out of Colorado could be made safer and more efficient with proposed legislation that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, and specifically, modernize our nation’s astonishingly outdated air traffic control (ATC) system.
Flying remains the safest way to travel, but that might be in spite of our current national air traffic control system rather than because of it. Most Coloradans would be stunned to learn that some of the technology currently being used at our nation’s busiest airports is more than 50 years old, but sadly, that is the case.
Antiquated equipment isn’t the only problem. The FAA currently can’t recruit, hire, train, and retain enough air traffic controllers to meet the needs of travelers and shippers. Further exacerbating the problem is that one third of the nearly 11,000 certified air traffic controllers are eligible to retire.
Congressional budget battles have made it difficult for the agency to help move the air traffic control system into the 21st century. Even when well-funded, the beleaguered FAA is stuck with an archaic procurement system. For example, upgrades to air traffic control systems that are scheduled for completion in the coming year were designed 18 years ago. What other technology-driven enterprise updates to equipment from the heyday of Windows 95?
We can solve this problem by putting the air traffic control system under new management – a not-for-profit organization that is independent of the federal government.
Under this proposal, the FAA would retain safety and regulatory oversight while ATC services would be performed by an independent organization funded through transparent user fees based on actual operating costs. Financing would go toward priorities that deliver results for the flying public – not pet political projects. No longer could budget fights in Washington, D.C. threaten to shut down or reduce air traffic control services across the country.
The U.S. air traffic control network must be modernized to better handle a growing volume of flights. How many of us have faced airport delays? Using the best current technologies, many of these delays could be reduced or eliminated, while creating efficiencies that allow investment in additional safety measures.
Handing control of air traffic management to a nongovernmental agency is neither a new idea nor untested. It’s an accepted practice around the world. The United Kingdom uses a model that has significantly reduced ATC-related flight delays. Canada is using more advanced technology to guide aircraft. Dozens of other countries have made this shift.
The proposed not-for-profit management of air traffic control would be governed by a board of directors representing key stakeholders: cargo shippers, general aviation users, air traffic controllers, airlines, the Pentagon, and the general public. The board would have a mandate to develop and operate a world-class system driven by high quality professionals and cutting edge technology – while maintaining safety and expanding access to users large and small. It would not be another government establishment with a novel name.
None of us want to have to think about air traffic control when we’re at the airport. We certainly don’t want to hear the pilot come on the intercom and tell us we’re the twelfth plane waiting for takeoff. With an air traffic control system that provides better technology and more controllers, we won’t have to. And everyone will benefit.