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U.S. air traffic control system badly needs improvement

Washington, June 21, 2016 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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U.S. air traffic control system badly needs improvement

Editorial Board
June 21, 2016

GOVERNMENT processes are notoriously slow to change and the results are often ineffective even when officials try. Just how slow is illustrated by the debate over modernizing air traffic control in the United States.

Consider this: The Associated Press recently reported that two new, supposedly state-of-the-art airport towers in San Francisco and Las Vegas may require “extensive remodeling to make room for technology that dates backs to the early days of air traffic control, according to union officials.”

The AP noted union officials say the new equipment installed in those two towers is prone to “crashes” and that controllers must instead “turn to the historic system of passing paper strips from one controller to another to hand off responsibility for a plane and carefully line up multiple strips to keep tabs on the status of flights.”

You read that right: It’s entirely possible that your safety in the air may depend upon people keeping track of random strips of paper.

In a recent newsletter, Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the libertarian Reason Foundation, noted comments made by National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi at a May 13 event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Rinaldi told attendees that Byzantine government procurement processes have ensured that obsolete air traffic control technology is being replaced by ... more obsolete technology.

“The World War II technology is phasing out,” Rinaldi said, “and we’re bringing in 1990s technology — because it takes that long.”

He said a “new” software system was 15 years out of date and $1 billion over budget by the time it finally went online.

In 2007, a survey of air controllers conducted by their union found conditions at many airports that were alarming, and occasionally worse. The AP reported Patrick Forrey, president of the controllers’ union, said water leaks were so severe at the Atlanta Center that controllers had to “hold an umbrella over the radar scope in order to see the planes and hope they do not get electrocuted while working.” 

As The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “You may have more accurate traffic and weather information driving with an iPhone than a pilot cruising at 30,000 feet ...”

Legislation has been filed in the U.S. House of Representatives to transform air traffic control into a nonprofit corporation governed by a board of 13 players (members would represent all affected parties). The system would be funded by fees collected from customers, rather than taxes, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s role would be downsized to safety regulation.

The proposed system would be similar to one long in place in Canada. The legislation has its supporters and detractors. But one of the strongest selling points made by supporters is that the Canadian system is far more modern and efficient than the existing U.S. system.

Poole, who favors the House bill, notes the basic idea underlying the legislation was first proposed in the 1970s. It’s telling, but not surprising, that an idea to modernize this area of government is older than many passengers flying in planes today.

Regardless of the final fate of the House legislation, numerous reports make clear the current air traffic control system is in desperate need of improvement. Americans’ flight safety should be tied to something more substantive than scrap paper and good umbrellas. 


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Tags: Aviation