Imagine entering a highway and being warned that no car is allowed to be closer than 50 feet from another. That’s the comparison used by one U.S. airline chief to describe the way the nation’s air traffic control system works.
Like many others, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, is in despair at how long it is taking to bring America’s air traffic management system into the 21st century.
Much of the system still depends on radar technology developed in the 1940s. A new system called NextGen has taken so long to develop and install that controllers are still operating a clunky patchwork that combines antiquated and updated equipment.
At the same time an effort in Congress to move air traffic control out of the Federal Aviation Administration and into a new nonprofit private body, ATC Corp, is going nowhere, once more thwarted by opposition from both political parties and assorted lobbyists.
To be sure, the issue of privatizing air traffic control is contentious—actually more contentious than it needs to be, given that more than 50 nations around the world have already done so without a problem.
But this is America and in Washington, D.C., nothing is ever straightforward. What almost beggars belief in this case is that many members of the party that claims to be devoted to removing the government from overseeing almost everything, the Republicans, want to leave air traffic control in the hands of a notoriously sclerotic government bureaucracy, the FAA.
You could hardly find a more egregious example of serial mismanagement than the history of NextGen. Between 2004 and 2006 the FAA spent nearly $26 million just planning the system. Since 2010 it has spent nearly a billion dollars a year on attempting to implement it, frequently missing deadlines and, according to government watchdogs, exceeding budgets. The program is projected to cost $37 billion by 2030—and produce savings of $106 billion.
There are two basic reasons why this is such an unholy boondoggle. The first is that the FAA is principally a regulatory agency with layers of technical specializations organized to draw up and promulgate rules, not to take on and efficiently manage large capital programs. The second is that the agency is at the mercy of a capricious annual budget appropriation system that is absolutely unsuited to funding large and very long-term infrastructure projects like modernizing the air traffic control system.
The pressure for modernization is immense. Air travel is growing at such a rate that we are within sight of a billion passengers a year passing through America’s airports. There is no way of adding more runways to most of our airports. The only way to handle more flights is to make more efficient use of existing airspace and runways. Basically, that means greater frequency of flights.
In the big picture, the world’s skies are mostly empty. They become crowded only along major airline routes and around airports, where the airspace has to be rigorously and finitely managed. In terms of safety America manages its airspace very well. In terms of efficiency it is way behind other nations.
And, to be clear, there is no tenable trade off between safety and efficiency. Safety always comes first. And so the argument becomes whether increased efficiency—meaning less separation time between airplanes and the introduction of new flight patterns—comes at the expense of safety.
The NextGen system means that instead of the airplane being represented as a blip on the controller’s radar it is displayed on a high-definition screen as a virtual airplane moving in real time. Moreover, the system places each airplane clearly and accurately among all nearby airplanes. At the same time in the cockpit pilots have an entirely new level of situational awareness—they also see the other traffic around them and, in heads-up three dimensional displays, the terrain and the weather ahead.
Of course, this should no longer seem miraculous at a time when self-driving cars have become prospective rather than bizarre and advanced cruise control in modestly priced sedans can already automatically maintain safe spacing between cars on a highway. And, in theory, it won’t be long before we could have pilotless airliners—one recent report predicted that it could be commonplace by 2040.
But for now, NextGen is a big enough leap. It enables the interaction of GPS satellite data, ground stations, cockpit digital displays, and the traffic controllers’ screens. All of this is far more precise than anything possible on the old radar system and makes it safe to close up the spacing between airplanes as they fly into the chokepoints of approach and takeoff. It means that each runway can handle as many as 10 more flights an hour.
As anybody knows who has been stuck in a holding pattern because of either weather or heavy traffic heading down to a landing, millions of gallons of aviation fuel are burned every year going nowhere, and adding to the pollution of the skies.
Holdings patterns are part of the clunky system that still applies at many U.S. airports where the airplane descends in a series of steps, each step needing speed changes and varying applications of engine power. In place of this, NextGen clears a pilot to descend from cruise height in a steady, virtual glide with the engines at idle until just before touchdown.
The savings in gas can be dramatic. FedEx uses NextGen approaches at its base at Memphis, Tennessee, and is saving a million dollars a month on fuel as a result.
The problem is that as long as NextGen is managed by the FAA it will continue to be hobbled by unpredictable budgeting and poor execution, while the whole future of air traffic control apparently remains at the mercy of conflicting interest groups.
For nearly two years the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Bill Shuster, has been trying to get his plan for the ATC Corp to a vote under his optimistically named Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act. He has the support of all the major U.S. airlines except Delta, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and—crucially—the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association. The union says that as planned the ATC Corp would protect its pay, benefits, and collective bargaining rights.
The plan is opposed by the Regional Airlines Association and the National Business Aviation Association—both on the questionable grounds that they think that under the ATC Corp they would end up paying higher fees. (It has also been estimated that there are 6,000 business jets in the U.S. still requiring NextGen cockpit upgrades that they will need to have—or be grounded—by January 2020, according to the current timetable for the system to become mandatory.)
The model most often cited for ATC Corp is Nav Canada. American Airlines chief Parker has said that, for an airline, the difference between the U.S. and Canadian systems is “night and day”—while Canada enjoyed far greater efficiency, he said, the trend here was the reverse, the system is so overloaded that it is actually slowing down rather than speeding up the frequency of flights. (Next Gen was supposed to reduce delays by 35 percent by 2018.)
However, this comparison is not as simple as the airlines would make it seem. Canada’s main airports are strung out in cities that more or less run parallel to the border with the U.S. and most of its airspace is empty. Canada has 49 air traffic control centers to America’s 317 and Canada handles one-quarter the volume of flights.
Britain, France, and Germany are better examples. They handle a mix of domestic and international flights at such a volume that many airports are near or at maximum capacity. Privatization has led to a more rapid adoption of new technology and increased efficiency without jeopardizing safety.
According to Department of Transportation figures, the air traffic control system is not itself the main cause of delayed flights in the U.S. The airlines are by far the greatest culprits. The reason why Delta stands apart in its opposition to privatization is based on its belief that its competitors manage traffic far less efficiently than it does and that the FAA system is not broken and, therefore, doesn’t need fixing.
That self-serving view should be balanced by Delta’s record. Last year its antiquated computer system crashed, grounding hundreds of flights. For passengers, Delta’s Atlanta hub is often an overburdened nightmare, particularly in bad weather, where connecting flights are frequently missed.
Lobbying by special interests is successfully sabotaging what should be an irrefutable case for change. Aviation accounts for more than 5 percent of the U.S. GDP and contributes $1.6 trillion in economic activity. Growth is being strangled by clinging to an anachronistic system on the spurious grounds that privatization would imperil safety and add costs. What should have been a landmark advance in infrastructure now languishes in the limbo of Congress.
In June President Trump staged a drumroll ceremony in the East Room of the White House to announce his support for air traffic control privatization, based on the Shuster plan, and including accelerated modernization of the system. Vice President Pence said, “Welcome to the beginning of a new era for American infrastructure.” Trump said, “Today we’re proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally.”
Democratic leaders chose to attack privatization as a social threat rather than show any grasp of the urgency of the technical issues. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “The entire focus of the president’s infrastructure proposal is on privatization, which sounds like a nice word, but when you scratch beneath the surface, it means much less construction and far fewer jobs, particularly in rural areas.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that privatization was “a Trojan horse for undermining workers’ wages and handling massive tax breaks to billionaires and corporations”—even though the controllers’ union was backing the move.
America has comparatively little experience with privatization. Its major utilities were never nationalized, as they often were in postwar Europe. In Britain, under Margaret Thatcher, privatization took on a “moonshot” priority and as a result the whole economy was transformed. Thatcher was later attacked for allowing entrepreneurs to get rich on the back of public assets, some of which, like the railways, they proceeded to make a mess of. But the air traffic control systems of Canada and Europe are different: They are self-funding nonprofits. That is also Shuster’s model.
Like many a flight, giving America the air traffic control system it badly needs is an enterprise that is likely to be very late arriving. At the very least, this reveals a serious failure of political will and imagination. For a variety of reasons, not all of them coherent, the Luddites are winning. As for “the new era for American infrastructure” there is as yet nothing but hot air.
In little more than a decade China has built a high-speed rail network that is already larger than the rest of the world’s combined.
And so the big question is: Why does America, of all nations, have so much trouble implementing urgently needed innovations like NextGen that it pioneered? This, it seems, is the age of No Can Do.