“Flypocalypse” Shows Air Traffic Control Too Important to Be Left to FAA

This past Saturday, hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled due to an air traffic control software glitch in the Washington, D.C. area. Naturally, #flypocalypse began trending on Twitter. Initially, the Federal Aviation Administration denied reports that their brand-new En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system was responsible. Yesterday, FAA officials admitted ERAM was the culprit.

ERAM is a critical component of the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control modernization program. In theory, it offers greatly improved communications, flight tracking, and controller display functionality, replacing a legacy system designed in the 1980s. But the FAA’s deployment of ERAM, like many NextGen components, has been plagued by serious problems.

Back in May, I noted that the FAA had just completed ERAM deployment—five years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Around the same time, the National Research Council issued a damning report of the FAA’s ongoing NextGen deployment failures. The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey highlighted some choice quotes from the NRC report:

  • “The original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today.”
  • “This shift in focus has not been clear to all stakeholders.”
  • “Airlines are not motivated to spend money on equipment and training for NextGen.”
  • “Not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future.”
  • “NextGen, as currently executed, is not broadly transformational.”
  • “‘NextGen’ has become a misnomer.”

The latest ERAM failure and resulting flight disruptions once again shows that the FAA cannot be trusted to deliver on NextGen. But air traffic modernization problems extend beyond the bungled NextGen rollout.

Just yesterday, the Government Accountability Office publicly released a report on the FAA’s ongoing attempt to integrate small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) into the national airspace system. In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to complete sUAS airspace integration by the end of September 2015. The GAO report concludes that the FAA will not be able to complete airspace integration until late 2016 or early 2017, lagging behind other industrialized countries and imposing greater restrictions on permissible sUAS operations. (CEI filed comments to the FAA in April 2015 on their proposed sUAS rule, criticizing the agency’s approach as fundamentally at odds with Congress’s 2012 mandate.)

The problems plaguing the FAA’s attempts to enter the 21st century cannot be solved by more money or more audits. Rather, fundamental institutional reforms need to be initiated as soon as possible. Most importantly, the FAA’s current air traffic control responsibilities must be spun off, preferably into an independent corporation. Much of the rest of the industrialized world has transformed their national air traffic management providers in such a manner since 1987.

Congress will soon take up the multi-year FAA reauthorization bill. While the legislative language has not yet been released by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it is widely thought that the bill will embody many if not all of the Principles of Air Traffic Control Reform that recently came out of the NextGen Working Group convened by the Eno Center for Transportation. It is not yet known what specific shape the reformed air traffic control entity will take, but one thing has become clear to all sensible aviation stakeholders and policy observers: air traffic control is too important to be left to the FAA.