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ICYMI: U.S. aviation is falling behind

Washington, D.C., July 24, 2017 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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U.S. aviation is falling behind
Fixing air traffic control is crucial, but so is investing more in airport infrastructure

By Christina Cassotis
July 23, 2017

The world of air travel has dramatically changed over the past several decades. More people than ever are flying as our world becomes increasingly interconnected.

But our country’s aviation system has not kept pace — either from an air traffic control standpoint or in terms of infrastructure. The system is stressed and rife with delays. A robust and well-functioning aviation system is an economic necessity to the country — and to southwestern Pennsylvania, where it supports billions of dollars in annual economic activity.

The federal government’s efforts to modernize air traffic control have fallen short. Despite two decades of trying and enormous sums of money spent, our system is not equipped with the technology pilots and controllers need to keep pace with increasing demand. The bureaucratic process, political squabbles and short-term congressional stopgap funding have hindered the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to move forward.

Congress now is considering a bill that would improve that inefficiency. By allowing an independent, nonprofit body to manage the air traffic control system, we could make upgrades that are long overdue.

Management and funding would be streamlined by taking day-to-day operation of the system out of the hands of the politicized federal government, while allowing the FAA to focus solely on what it does best — regulating safety. This nonprofit would be overseen by a board of aviation-industry professionals whose focus would be doing what’s best for the aviation system and traveling public.

Funding would come from user-based fees, as it does now, except that it wouldn’t be subject to political whims, such as budget sequestration. For pilots who fly smaller planes, a separate fee structure should be considered.

Upgrading our outdated air traffic control system would allow planes to fly more direct routes and free them of the constraints and limitations necessitated by old technology. This would translate into shorter flights, fewer delays and reduced carbon emissions. Air traffic controllers also would be better able to monitor and manage aircraft, improving safety.

We know this kind of system can work. Canada, Britain, Australia and other developed countries around the world have implemented similar structures.

Of course, other measures also are needed to fix our broken, delay-prone system. Airline consolidation, which has resulted in pushing more and more people through fewer gateways, also is a problem. But air traffic control reform would certainly help.

Contrary to some claims, separating air traffic control from the federal government would not mean privatizing the nation’s airspace, over which the FAA would remain in charge. But it would allow the United States to join the rest of the developed world in de-politicizing the operation and management of this critical aviation function.

An independent nonprofit with dedicated funding would be more nimble and able to more quickly deploy new technology. I respect the tough job of air traffic controllers. They do great work and keep pace with an ever-increasing number of flights. They deserve the best tools available.

Independent boards are nothing new in the United States. Leaders in Allegheny County in the 1990s spun off the county aviation department into the Allegheny County Airport Authority, a separate entity governed by a board of directors drawn from industry and government. This has allowed the authority to function like a business, while continuing to generate its own revenue and requiring no subsidies from county taxpayers. This structure has allowed us to make necessary investments in time, strategy, travel and resources to recruit airlines and support air travel in our region. It has paid off.

However, much like the air traffic control system, our airports also need to be upgraded. In Pittsburgh, a modernization plan is being developed as we determine what’s best for our region, given that our facility is too big, with outdated infrastructure and technology. Airports around the country are assessing their long-term needs, and it’s clear that the federal government must step up its funding for airport infrastructure.

We’re disappointed that the bill now before Congress does not address this. User fees that fund airport infrastructure improvements were last raised in 2000, with inflation continuing to erode their buying power. Nevertheless, the lack of additional infrastructure investment should not delay essential reforms like those proposed for the air traffic control system.

The United States helped to pioneer aviation, and we must be open to new and better ways of doing things. We must embrace best practices. The effects of delays are felt from Pittsburgh to New York to Southern California, and to the rest of the world.

We have made much progress at Pittsburgh International Airport in the past two-and-a-half years. Nonstop destinations have increased to 68 from 37. Eight new airlines have started service, including WOW air to Iceland and Condor Airlines to Germany. We must continue to make progress, for our region and the entire aviation system.

We’re encouraged by the prospects for air traffic control reform. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a good first step.

Christina Cassotis is CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which owns and operates Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport.

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Tags: Aviation