By David Grizzle
Any traveler idling on the tarmac at San Diego International Airport can credit our nation’s aging, antiquated air traffic control system for their hassle and delay in leaving America’s Finest City.
In fact, half of all flight delays are caused by air traffic control system constraints, and just as concerning, flight times are getting longer because controllers can’t keep pace with more congested air space.
With Congress now back in session, the House will soon decide whether to authorize the reforms our nation’s air traffic control system so desperately needs to effectively operate in an era of unprecedented passenger demand.
This is an issue of fundamental importance, not merely for the convenience of California travelers, pilots and controllers, but for the health and durability of national security and our national and local economies. In California, aviation accounts for 4.6 percent of the state’s GDP and employs more than 1.17 million workers.
Having spent over three decades in the aviation industry, including three years as the chief operating officer for the Federal Aviation Administration overseeing the country’s air traffic control system, I can say unequivocally that Congress must act now if we are to enjoy a modern air traffic control system able to handle today’s traffic without cascading delays, but also to handle the even greater traffic demands of the future. The House will soon hold a critical vote on the 21st Century AIRR Act, a reform measure that is long overdue to secure the future of American aviation.
Let’s start with the critical facts: Improving America’s air traffic control system is vital to our national interests. The economy does not work when we’re not flying, and it works significantly less well when we’re not flying efficiently. The FAA’s own numbers tell us that delays and cancellations cost our economy and our customers $25 billion every year. A 2013 United States Travel Association report concluded delays and cancellations drove demand down by 8 percent and prompted passengers to avoid 38 million domestic air trips costing the American economy $85 billion and 900,000 jobs.
The debate lies in the proposed solution. Some argue that we need to keep the current structure in place and invest more in it. Unfortunately, that’s the equivalent of throwing good money after bad. Congress is already several billion dollars behind in getting systems for which they appropriated taxpayer money. I’ve witnessed the professionalism and dedication of our FAA employees and controllers firsthand. This is not an indictment of them—the problem is the inert procurement and financing structure that hinders modernization efforts. In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that the FAA can’t recruit new controllers. This is an unsustainable status quo.
The proper solution is credited to President Clinton, who proposed in 1993 establishing an independent, non-profit entity to run air traffic control. The idea now has the support of the current administration, Speaker Paul Ryan, forward-thinking Democrats and the unions representing air traffic controllers and pilots.
The opposition is largely driven by private and corporate jet interests, who are concerned that they could lose the substantial subsidy they receive to operate private jets that carry only a few people but take up the same airspace as commercial jets with hundreds of passengers.
Change is hard. But this decision is easy. We should not wait until the system is hopelessly broken before we act to fix it. Tell the San Diego regions’s five members of Congress to vote YES on the 21st Century AIRR Act.
David Grizzle is the former chief operating officer for the Federal Aviation Administration.