Modernizing Air Traffic Control In The United States

In The Washington Examiner, a story citing me provides an overview of where the United States is in modernizing its air traffic control system. Currently, the core of U.S. ATC is decades old. New technologies are now available, but the Federal Aviation Administration is having difficulty rolling them out in a timely and cost-effective manner:

A Transportation Department inspector general report in May stated bluntly that “success of the FAA’s plans also depends on how it addresses significant workforce issues [and] … will also require FAA to collectively bargain with its unions.”

The report goes on to note that while NATCA leadership has expressed support for the overall project, its local affiliates are pushing back.

“During our visits to the New York Center and New York [facilities], FAA and union officials indicated that they would oppose plans to build an integrated facility outside of Long Island,” the IG report said.

In congressional testimony in May, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said his union supports realignments, provided the changes are improvements over the old system. But he added: “To date, the majority of the FAA’s business cases have not stood up to that scrutiny.”

In other words, we support realignment, except when we don’t, which is most of the time.

“The unions are concerned that a true computer-driven digital aviation monitoring will make quite a few of their employees redundant,” CEI’s Scribner said.

The unions have major say in how those projects go forward. The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act directs the agency to take input from labor and industry to develop a consensus on realignment.

Rinaldi explained how his union got two proposed facility realignments to be put on hold. “Both proposals were evaluated, first by the FAA, then jointly by the FAA and NATCA. The collaborative review of all of the associated data resulted in a different conclusion than the review without NATCA’s collaboration.” Funny how that works out.

CEI’s Scribner was careful to point out that the union was just one part of the delays. The restructuring of the entire air traffic control system is a vast project and the FAA is “bungling” it overall.

By contrast, Canada already began implementing its own GPS-based system a decade ago. “Canada — socialist Canada — privatized their air traffic control system in the mid-’90s,” Scribner noted with some irony. “But here in the free-market bastion of the United States, we are behind.”

Canada’s privatized air navigation service, Nav Canada, recently completed a near-term upgrade of its ATC system. Dubbed “NowGen,” Nav Canada deployed new technologies such as ADS-B while harnessing existing infrastructure to improve efficiency and pave the way for more substantial upgrades in the future.

While not as revolutionary as NextGen, Canada’s “NowGen” initiative shows how better management from the private sector and avoidance of political meddling can offer improved service in the short-run while preparing for major changes in the long-run (Nav Canada, along with Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation, has been working extensively with the FAA in the build-out of NextGen).

The FAA, like Mexico’s SCT, is an anomaly among air navigation services in larger economies — some have privatized while others have at least separated the roles of safety regulation and air traffic control. If the United States cannot privatize air traffic control, it should at the very least separate the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization from the rest of the aviation safety regulatory agency.

The FAA’s implementation of NextGen has so far been plagued with cost overruns and delays. For instance, a key component of NextGen called En Route Automation Modernization is now nearly five years behind schedule and significantly over-budget. Much of that delay can be traced to a multi-year collective bargaining standoff between the FAA and its air traffic controller union.

This is unacceptable. Both the agency and the union deserve blame, but the root problem is institutional. Until Congress has the courage to radically reform the way civil airspace is managed, the United States will continue to waste time and money entering aviation’s next generation — and likely behind the rest of the developed world.