No Time to Lose on Air Traffic Control Reform

Opponents Have Had 25 Years to Make Their Case. Instead, They’ve Made a Case for Change.

During the quarter century that people in our nation’s capital have been talking seriously about reforming our Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, the flight time from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to New York’s LaGuardia has increased, on average, by 13 minutes.

Over that same time frame, technology has brought Americans innovations and efficiencies that were hard to fathom in the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration first proposed ATC reform. We’ve become a nation of smartphones, drones and robots, yet we still sequence our planes for takeoff using tiny strips of paper.

As Airlines for America prepares for our 5th annual Commercial Aviation Industry Summit in Washington, experts from across the industry will highlight the urgency of delivering the world-class ATC system that customers deserve now: Our ATC system is clearly and painfully behind the times.

Our ATC system is clearly and painfully behind the times.

Those set on maintaining the status quo have an argument that, if told truthfully, would go something like this: Aside from the billions of dollars in cost overruns, the missed deadlines for implementing new technology, the unpredictable funding and the drag it places on America’s economy and aviation leadership, our ATC system is just fine. Wall Street Journal aviation columnist Scott McCartney summed it well in describing what pilots experience flying from Canada — which has NavCanada, a non-governmental structure — into the United States: It’s “like time travel for pilots. Going north to south, you leave a modern air-traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up.”

The nation’s pilots, air traffic controllers and the flying public have had to endure this struggle long enough. If anything, opponents of ATC reform two decades ago have had the opportunity to kill the idea of restructuring our system and to make the case against it. Instead, in the ensuing years, the system itself has made an ironclad case that it must be reformed. Now is the time to do that. A few numbers to consider:

As the leaders of the commercial aviation industry gather in Washington to explore and discuss our exciting future, we will celebrate the continued growth in air travel, the luxury of new fleets of planes, the convenience of in-flight amenities like Wi-Fi, and upgraded airport accommodations. Yet reliably we will also lament the skunk at our picnic: the languishing air traffic control system.

We have the opportunity to create the ATC structure that will serve the flying public, shippers and the U.S. economy. We know what we need to do, and we know how to do it. Here’s hoping that when the 6th annual Commercial Aviation Industry Summit rolls around next fall, we’ll be celebrating what is rather than lamenting, once again, what could be.

Nick Calio is president and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association for the nation’s leading airlines.

Want to learn more about ATC modernization? Read below for a primer on ATC reform and how airlines power our nation's economy.

The number of countries, including Canada, that have successfully modernized their ATC systems. With each passing year of inaction, the U.S. risks its position as a global aviation leader.
10 million-plus
Number of American jobs directly tied to the U.S. commercial aviation industry.
2003

Year that NextGen was conceived as the future of the U.S. air traffic control system.
20??

The year NextGen will be up and running if the status quo remains.