We've modernized everything in America but air traffic control. That's dangerous.
Russell G. Chew and David Grizzle
February 4, 2016
Less than 18 months ago, a single disgruntled government contractor sabotaged the high-altitude air traffic control center in Chicago. Immediately, passengers and crew on 135 jets were at risk.
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Fortunately, controllers were able to use cellphones and other improvised techniques to avert disaster and get all of those flights safely on the ground. This incident underscores the need to adopt more robust, modern technology to manage our skies.
Congress stands poised to achieve this important goal on behalf of American air travelers. Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, this week introduced the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act to provide a solution that will put air traffic control on a clear path to modernization.
“It's like trying to rebuild a plane while flying it.” We have all heard this common analogy for undertaking highly complex tasks.
It seems particularly suited to describe the long-stalled goal of upgrading our nation's air traffic control system.
As politicians push for major airports such as O'Hare to modernize and expand their terminals, it's important to remember that, behind the scenes, today's air traffic controllers find themselves burdened by legacy technologies that date to World War II. Paper strips are still used to help track plane movement overhead. Equally challenging, they operate under an outdated organizational structure burdened with layers of bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that more than 60 nations have adopted a better model.
Air navigation and system backup technologies already exist that would address the problems that plague air travel inefficiencies and help avert the damage caused by the Chicago sabotage. Unfortunately, the constrained budgets and bureaucratic roadblocks in Washington have prevented their timely implementation, and the time has come to make a change for the better.
The current system brings to mind a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll. As Dorothy Robyn wrote for the Brookings Institution, “Air traffic control is a 24/7, technology-intensive, service 'business' trapped inside of a regulatory agency that is constrained by federal procurement and budget rules, burdened by a flawed financing system, and micromanaged by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.”
The creation of a nonprofit model for our nation's air traffic control system would address these inherent problems, leading to improved safety, efficiency and accelerate the implementation of the next generation of air traffic control.
Shuster summed the AIRR Act nicely when he wrote that “the bill lets the FAA do what it does best—focus on the safety of U.S. air transportation—but it stops assuming that a government bureaucracy can act like a Silicon Valley company.”
Funded by operators who use the system and free of federal budget politics, the independent air traffic control organization would be positioned to improve its services by upgrading the system's infrastructure and updating its procedures. For decades, the need for these investments has been well-known, but the funding simply hasn't been there.
As a result, the air traffic control system remains all too vulnerable to acts of sabotage like what took place in Chicago in 2014. With global threats on the rise and much discussion about the vulnerability of key infrastructure, we can't afford to stand idly by.
Air travelers should never again find themselves in peril as they did in the skies over Chicago as a result of a lone, disgruntled individual. Our economy should not stand to suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in damage because we don't have the technology in place to avoid disaster.
Russell G. Chew and David Grizzle are former chief operating officers of the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C.