Archived Content

How to Fix Air-Traffic Control

Dec 22, 2015

Sticking with what's not working doesn't make sense

Flying to or through NYC this holiday season? If so, you could be forgiven  for anticipating delays. Maybe even lengthy ones.

The problem of lost time is not a reflection of the good work of the flight crew or air traffic controllers. It's an institutional problem, caused by an outdated, old-technology system of air traffic control. When it comes to operating airports and airplanes, the United States has fallen behind much of the world, and it's a significant competitive disadvantage in the global economy.

A group of top airline executives recently addressed the issue in a column in Crain's New York Business:

Opponents of a plan to restructure the nation’s air-traffic control assert that all is well in the skies above New York City, a claim that must come as a surprise to anyone who regularly flies to or through the city’s airports. New York’s airports have consistently ranked among the nation’s top-five most-delayed airports for years.

To set the record straight, while there have been modest improvements by an agency that is trying very hard but is severely constrained by budget instability and federal rules, there is still considerable room for improvement. Like our passengers, the overwhelming majority of U.S. airlines are not satisfied with the status quo. We strongly believe the largest and most important air traffic system in the world is well overdue for modernization, something that has eluded numerous attempts over many years.

We also believe the creation of a federally chartered, not-for-profit air traffic control organization is the only way to drive meaningful transformation from a bureaucracy that hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades. It’s hard to imagine a high-performance organization that lacks certainty of funding beyond one or two years, and the ability to independently raise capital for major infrastructure projects. Our proposal would eliminate uncertainties created by the federal budget process and the organization would be governed by a board that represents and is accountable to all users of the system.

Business Roundtable has championed this high-tech solution to the problems of our air traffic control system. In May, Business Roundtable President John Engler testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation at a hearing, "FAA Reauthorization: Air Traffic Control Modernization and Reform." His prepared statement is here

Also, the full Crain's op-ed is available here. Authors are Tim Campbell, senior vice president of air operations at American Airlines; Jeff Martin, executive vice president of operations at JetBlue Airways; Craig Drew, senior vice president for air operations at Southwest Airlines; and Howard Attarian, senior vice president of flight operations at United Airlines.