In the coming weeks, the United States Congress will have its best opportunity to place the world’s largest aviation market on the path towards meeting the transportation and connectivity needs of the 21st Century. It can do this by supporting legislation that will make possible the long-delayed transformation and modernization of America’s antiquated air traffic control system by placing it in an independent not-for-profit structure outside of government.
In doing so, Congress will eliminate one of the primary roadblocks to ATC modernization: the unpredictable annual federal budget process. This process and the politics around it have contributed mightily to escalating costs and crippling delays in the rollout of the country’s much-needed NextGen air traffic modernization initiative, while limiting the FAA’s flexibility to manage airspace in a more rational and efficient manner.
How delayed is NextGen? A lot. According to a recent US Government report, full implementation will not arrive before 2035—31 years after it was launched--and cost two-to-three times more than the initial estimated $40 billion public/private investment. Meanwhile, the scheduled block time between major cities such as Washington and New York has risen 19% since 1990, according to Airlines for America.
As is common in most developed countries, funding for this not-for-profit ATC organization will come from fees charged to airspace users, not the general treasury. The service will be overseen by a board composed of representatives of airspace users as well as government—acting on behalf of the flying public.
Taking ATC out of government is not a new idea. It’s been 21 years since Canada, facing some of the same issues, did it with its own air traffic control organization. Today, Nav Canada is recognized as a global leader in air traffic efficiency and technology—which it sells to other air navigation service providers. Other countries have taken similar, if not identical approaches, among them Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. All of these countries understood that there is nothing inherently governmental about operating air traffic control services. Importantly, governments continue to oversee the safety of the air traffic service providers, creating a separation between the service provider and the safety regulator. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
So if it’s such a good idea, why has the US, which led the world in airline deregulation and Open Skies, taken a backseat when it comes to much needed air traffic reform? Actually, the idea’s been kicking around Washington for more than 30 years, but up until now there has not been a broad coalition of stakeholders who support it. Now, however, this idea has a chance to move forward, led by Congressman Bill Shuster with strong support from airlines, air traffic controllers, business and consumer travel groups--and President Trump.
IATA estimates that nearly 500 million more passengers will take to US skies by 2035. There is no way that the current air traffic control system can manage that number of additional flights without serious reform. Now is the time to transform US airspace. Our industry is committed to doing its part to make it a success.