Why is the leading technological country in the world unable to install a national Air Traffic Control System?

The long term funding of FAA and the development and installation of the full suite of NextGen systems are at a nexis point.

While these issues appear separate, they are really inter-twined since the dissatisfaction of lawmakers about NextGen progress is one of the causes of the short term funding. Both lawmakers and private citizens are at a loss and wondering why private firms like Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and Google develop and install millions of lines of code and modifications every year, and the FAA is unable to install a working comprehensive Air Traffic Control system for over three decades. It is especially worrisome since New Zealand did it in 1987, dozens of countries have spun off air-traffic control services into some type of private or government-owned corporation, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia.

Twenty years ago the Canadian government turned over air-traffic control services to a newly created not-for-profit corporation. Nav Canada has a board of directors, charges airlines and private aircraft for its services, sells bonds to raise capital and pumps earnings back into the company.

Nav Canada started when the Canadian government was bogged down with budget deficits and a major contract to build a new system for air-traffic controllers faced escalating costs, according to officials involved at the time. Staffing was frozen. Flight delays were growing.

“We had general dissatisfaction from everybody,” says Neil Wilson, Nav Canada’s chief executive. “We had a safe system, but it was not a system that was delivering all that it could.”

The U.S. has debated splitting the FAA into a safety regulator and a service provider since the 1990s. But this year was the first that legislation was actually introduced. Fees have actually come down. Nav Canada’s third reduction in the fees it charges will go into effect later this year. But the biggest change has been the ability to get new technology to controllers to improve flying.

Metropolitan Airport News interviewed former Secretary of the Department of Transportation, the Honorable James H. Burnley, and his views mirrors most in the aviation community. Burnley compared the progress made by EU community and Canada to that of the United States. “Hopefully” he said “after the recent passage of the FAA funding bill, congress can concentrate on allocating funds to building a NAV Canada system here in the United States.”

Burnley is well aware of the lack of progress with NextGen and has accepted the Chairmanship of ENO Center for Transportation, a group dedicated in seeking continuous improvement in transportation and its public and private leadership in order to increase the system’s mobility, safety and sustainability.

ENO Center has been a strong proponent of privatization and ended their last position paper with the following paragraph. “There is no reason that the Congress, the administration, and the aviation stakeholders cannot come together and create a system that is safe, is attentive to user needs, has reliable and stable funding streams, is cost-effective, and is able to deploy modernization efficiently. Many other nations have done it, so the only remaining question is: Why can’t we?

As reported in the Hill on July 11th, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the House Transportation Committee that his union supports legislation that would move his members to a private, nonprofit corporation that would supervise 50,000 U.S. flights each day. Rinaldi said that he doubted modernization of the current antiquated system would progress expeditiously if left in the FAA’s hands.
Moving the operation to a corporation that would draw its revenue from user fees would free it from dependence on the instabilities of Congress.

“Our 24/7 aviation system has been challenged by 23 extensions in authorization, a partial shutdown, a complete government shutdown, as well as numerous threatened shutdowns,” Rinaldi testified.

Said a pilot who flies between US and Canada; flying over the U.S.-Canadian border is like time travel.  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 model is Nav Canada, the world’s second-largest air-traffic control agency, after the U.S. Canada handles a huge volume of traffic between the U.S. and both Asia and Europe. Airlines praise its advanced technology that results in shorter and smoother flights with less fuel burn.

Another innovation adopted around the world is electronic flight strips—critical information about each flight that gets changed on touch screens and passed from one controller to another electronically. Nav Canada has used them for more than 13 years. Many U.S. air controllers still use paper printouts placed in plastic carriers about the size of a 6-inch ruler that controllers scribble on.

The evidence for separating the development of a national air traffic control system by a private, or government/private partnership is impressive. The only negative in my view is that the inability of the FAA to build this system has tainted the competency and hard work done by our Air Traffic Controllers and FAA staff involved in operating our aviation system safely. They are doing a great job.

The stakeholders who favor privatization form an impressive list of companies, unions and associations; lets’ not let politicians block our chance to build this system. ■

Mr. Alba was previously Editor of the Airport Press for 12 years covering both local as well as global aviation news. Prior to this, Mr. Alba had Executive positions in Systems Engineering and Marketing with IBM World Trade, and had foreign assignments in the Far East and Latin America earning three Outstanding Achievement Awards. Mr. Alba also directed a new function dealing with Alternate Fuels for Public Service Electric & Gas company in New Jersey and founded a Natural Gas Vehicle Consortium consisting of car company executives and fleet owners, and NGV suppliers in New Jersey. Mr. Alba was a founding partner of ATA, an IT Consulting company which is still active in Central and South America. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Alba’s initial employee was the U.S. Defense Department as an analyst.

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