During my time in the United States Senate, I was a steadfast advocate for investment into our nation’s infrastructure. Our state sits in the middle of America and at the center of our country’s infrastructure of road, rail and river networks.
Globally, America’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system sits at the center of the world’s air travel system. However, the system has not received the upgrades necessary to keep up with the times. While the technology used in our airplanes has dramatically improved, our nation’s air traffic system is still largely reliant on World War II-era technology that leads to costly — yet avoidable — inefficiencies, delays and disruptions. The ATC system is safe — thanks to the dedicated work of our nation’s air traffic controllers — but it’s becoming less and less efficient, and there is insufficient capacity to accommodate future growth in air travel.
For example, the current system utilizes radar, instead of the GPS technology that we use every day in our cars and on our phones. By utilizing satellite-based navigation, the system will allow more efficient routing and create opportunities for air carriers to provide new flights and service options for passengers, especially in smaller communities across the country. These reforms will improve consumer experience, expand consumer access and help contain consumer costs.
Additionally, a third of our controller workforce is currently eligible for retirement, and the training and recruitment pipeline is lagging. These men and women do a wonderful job with the current technology but we must anticipate workforce challenges and invest in new technology to improve the process. At the same time, the number of flyers on U.S. carriers has climbed for the sixth consecutive year, and is expected to continue rising, putting our air traffic control system under stress.
These challenges are not new — during the time I was chairman or ranking member on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee we looked every year at the problems with the ATC system. It became obvious that a major upgrade was needed, but there was never enough money in the regular budget to accomplish that. There is currently bipartisan legislation to reform this system that solves these challenges and has the support of President Donald Trump and Missouri’s congressman on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Sam Graves. The proposal, which has been under consideration by various administrations for decades, would move air traffic control out of the federal bureaucracy and move it into a federally chartered, not-for-profit corporation. With members representing a wide variety consumers and system users, the reform would allow for significant improvements while keeping safety oversight under the control of the FAA.
These proposed reforms would allow the new ATC system to modernize through less bureaucratic red tape, new bond-financing tools, and greater long-term funding certainty. All of which would allow for greater investments in new, satellite-based technologies and help bring U.S. aviation into the 21st century.
Over 50 industrialized countries — including Canada over 20 years ago — have reformed their systems in such a way with proven efficiency and safety results. If we want to continue to have the safest ATC system in the world, we need to modernize technology and ensure budget impasses and political haggling cannot interrupt the system. This approach can keep costs down, reduce congestion and delays and enhance safety.
Recently, a coalition of transportation, business and elected leaders joined together to form the Missouri Citizens for On Time Flights. Thousands of Missourians have joined the effort to modernize our air traffic control system. Now, we need our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to act.
Small, incremental change will not bring the transformational reform we need. Maintaining the status quo runs the risk of further eroding U.S. leadership in air travel. I urge Congress to move swiftly to pass this important reform and make these critical improvements to our air traffic control system.
St. Louis has a proud aviation history. If we are to build on it, we need our elected leaders to join the cause of air traffic control reform.
Christopher “Kit” Bond is a former Republican senator in Missouri.