Air Traffic Control Reform and the Presidential Race

It happened! Finally!Greg Principato - ACI-NA President

This week, both major party presidential candidates talked about air traffic control and the need to finally do the job of modernizing the system. The catalyst was a communications malfunction at an FAA facility that caused extensive delays earlier this week, along with massive inconvenience for airline passengers.

Sen. McCain stated that it is past time to “repair and reform a broken system,” while Sen. Obama pledged to “deploy the next generation air traffic control system,” and also pointed to the negative impact incidents like this have on passengers.

Much like the current fuel crisis, this is not a new issue. People have talked for a long time about doing something; and as readers of this blog know, the presidential commission I ran in 1993 made air traffic control reform its No. 1 priority recommendation. I still have on my desk the vacuum tube Vice President Gore waved at a press conference in 1994 calling for air traffic control reform and modernization — it had also been a major recommendation of his commission to re-invent government.

To be fair, both the Clinton Administration and Bush Administration have advanced proposals to move this forward, and many in Congress understand the need. But there have been two problems.

The first is the massive indifference in the industry for much of the past 15 years (I use that as my time frame because that was when I became heavily involved). I have already discussed this in earlier blogs and see no need to re-plow that ground. But all of us in aviation must look in the mirror. The good news now is that the industry is coming together on the need to bring air traffic control reform and modernization online as quickly as possible. The industry is engaged.

The second, and more important, factor has been a lack of interest, or understanding, by the press and the public. The 1993 commission’s recommendation on air traffic control resulted in a collective yawn in the press; privately it resulted even in ridicule. It was not seen as a sexy enough issue; many had hoped we’d recommend tax breaks or handouts for airlines or manufacturers or airports. Over the years it has been hard to engage the press on this issue unless there was a specific incident.

The air traffic control system has been called the assembly line of our aviation network. I have always believed if more people understood this, and understood the system’s shortcomings, that political pressure would grow and force action. But that has not yet, to this day, happened. I think it is starting to; the business community has become interested over the past few years and that is hugely important. Failure to act has cost the U.S. economy billions, as a report by the Joint Economic Committee pointed out earlier this year. But there is no real political pressure — yet — aimed at forcing action and completion of air traffic control modernization and reform.

Now that the issue is on the radar screen of the presidential candidates, we need to ensure that it stays there; and that interest lasts beyond Jan. 20, 2009. Aviation issues are mostly discussed and debated between and among people who work in the business. It is time to include the public in the discussion, and in the effort to bring results.

On Gettysburg, Biden and McCain

I took a day off this past Friday and went to Gettysburg. My wife and I took the Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentbattlefield bus tour. It is a two-hour tour that only scratches the surface of all the happened there. It was my first visit and it is awe-inspiring.

In the last 60 days, I’ve visited Gettysburg and Normandy. It is easy to imagine how different our world would be if things turned out differently in either place.

For me, this should remind us never to take the many blessings of this country for granted. They are hard won.

We are a non-partisan organization and this blog is not a partisan vehicle, but if you read the “About Greg” section you’ll note that I once worked for the newly announced Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden. Over the four years I worked there I went to dozens of town meetings in Delaware. He has a real talent for connecting with people and will be effective in his new role. I think he also understands the importance of transportation — he really does take the train home each evening, that’s not just a legend but a fact.

Given the Sen. John McCain’s understanding of transportation as the former chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, one hopes this election will bode well for transportation issues regardless of how it turns out

Back in the office

I’m off the road and back in the office after another driving trip through the Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentMidwest. Unlike the one I took a month ago, there was far more traffic on the road, and far less talk among people I met about fuel prices. In fact, I am detecting a certain amount of relief in many people, as pump prices are starting to come down noticeably (though still to levels that prompted panic a few months ago). This concerns me a little; as I’ve written before, our history is that we fail to confront the long term energy challenge in this country as soon as per barrel and pump prices start downward.

That relief, though, does not extend to airport directors.

Service cutbacks prompted by high fuel prices remain in force. Airports continue to look for ways to cut budgets in response, and some have begun to lay off employees. Fewer passengers mean less revenue for airports. Airports are also coming to grips with the fact that many of their costs simply do not lend themselves to easy reduction no matter how much (or little) air service they have. Airports still have to secure the perimeter, airports still have to maintain the airfield, and so on. Airports still strive to meet the needs of delayed or stranded customers that were once met by airlines. I will write more on all of this another time.

This has now been noticed by the folks in the financial community. Airport finances are strong, in large part because of shrewd management, and because as public entities, they have maintained solid bond ratings and balanced budgets, resulting in lower costs for their users. The folks at Moody’s Investor’s Service, though, have sounded the alarm bell. They note the negative financial trends in the airport industry: enplanement declines, reduced consumer purchasing power, and the increased potential for airline bankruptcies that could lead to further consolidation and a reduction in competition. While Moody’s expects the large majority of airports to be fine, they note these pressures can increase, and that bond ratings can be affected. This would raise costs not just for airports and their communities, but for airlines and passengers as well.

If you’ve read this blog before you know I believe that long-term thinking and planning is the best way to ensure more stable short-term periods. The airport industry has been notable for its ability to think long term; indeed, the communities that rely on airports demand it. But this is bigger than airports or airlines or anyone else. This country has to avoid the mistakes it made in 1973 (per barrel price quadrupled), 1979 (per barrel price tripled) and 1991 (large spike during and after Persian Gulf War); when it allowed the realization that long term steps were needed to evaporate as soon as the price started edging down. I am already worried that we might be on the same path.

Another President . . . and More on Energy

I’m writing this from Champaign, Illinois. All my in-laws are here so we drove out. Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentOn the way we stopped in Indianapolis to see the gravesite of Benjamin Harrison. Harrison is mostly known for beating the 22nd president, Grover Cleveland, and then losing after one term to the 24th president …. Grover Cleveland. According to my friend Al Felzenberg (a noted presidential historian whose new book The Leaders We Deserved….And A Few We Didn’t I highly recommend), Harrison deserves better than to be known as the filler in the Grover Cleveland sandwich.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Champaign looking at USA Today’s Business section. One article talks about the impact on trade of the RISING price of oil. The article right below it talks about the impact on stocks of the FALLING price of …… oil!

To me, this perfectly illustrates the danger of so much of the commentary we hear today in the press and the campaigns about the price of energy. It is all about today, and immediate “relief” and, indeed, relief is what many people and communities need. But if it is all about the short term, then we will find ourselves a decade from now — or the next time oil prices spike — lamenting that we didn’t take long-term steps today to address and shape our energy future.

Few sectors have been as hard hit as aviation. Hundreds of communities across North America are working hard to deal with service cutbacks and other changes (Air Canada’s announcement of large job cuts illustrates that this is a cross-border issue). As I’ve already written, my visit to the ACI Africa meeting illustrates that this is a global issue.

Tough times lead to creative thinking….and lots of ideas. Some of those ideas are pretty good, others not so much. ACI-NA is working hard on the analytical work necessary to sort the good from the bad so we can help shape the future of the industry, and of the air transportation system. We are pretty sure the answer isn’t to nationalize all or part of the industry as some propose. We are certain that the answer lies partly in more capacity, in the air and on the ground. We are certain that the answer lies partly in a better strategic, long term, approach by both industry and government — about both aviation AND energy. (Where would we be today if the airline industry had embraced air traffic control reform in the 1990’s, when we had a real opportunity to do something?).

I will be visiting the airport director here in Champaign tomorrow as part of the effort to craft ideas to help smaller communities cope with these changes.

A mentor of mine loved to say “we can shape the future, or be shaped by it.” Today, we are being shaped by an energy — and aviation — future we declined to address long ago.

Postscript to Atlanta trip

Yesterday, I wrote a posting from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport. Specifically, I Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentwrote from the boarding area.

My flight (AirTran 176) from ATL to DCA was delayed. Weather in the Atlanta area caused a ground stop. The actual airplane to be used for flight 176 was still in Raleigh, North Carolina, awaiting clearance to leave for Atlanta. Our departure would be delayed.

The gate agent got on the public address system and explained all this to people. She ran through a couple of scenarios, depending on when the plane would leave Raleigh, and told us she’d be back in touch in 15 minutes.

About 10 minutes later, she came back, told us which of the scenarios had played out, and what that meant for our flight. She also explained to people waiting for later flights scheduled to leave from that gate what it would all mean for their flights.

She repeated these announcements every 5-10 minutes from then until we were ready to board almost 90 minutes later. She’d begin by saying “in case you weren’t in the boarding area when the last announcement was made…” It reminded me of Red Barber, the old time baseball broadcaster, who used an egg timer to remind him to tell the audience the score, so they always knew, even those who joined the broadcast late. Until we boarded the plane, this young woman made sure we had all the information we needed. When I boarded, I thanked her for doing that.

The boarding area was quite crowded all this time, but there was no consternation, there were no disturbances. Everyone was calm, all the way through boarding and the flight. People were in a good mood, even. I think this is because we always had up to date information, we never had to guess and hope when our flight would be ready, and so we were prepared and not disappointed.

There has been a lot of attention these past couple of years on passenger service. I am convinced that what most passengers really want is reliable, candid, up to date, information. They hate it when no information is forthcoming. They hate it when people just tell them there is an ATC delay. Most passengers understand that, sometimes, things happen. They just want to be informed.

The young woman at gate C8 in Atlanta yesterday afternoon did that. And her passengers were most grateful.

Thoughts from West Virginia and Atlanta

I’m back from Ghana and have spent much of the time clearing out all the emails Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentthat backed up in my blackberry while I saw gone. I got phone and text service but not email. You don’t realize how much you rely on these little machines till they’re gone!

On Monday I attended the West Virginia Aviation Conference. Governor Joe Manchin spoke at lunch and they had me for dinner. Several small commercial service and general aviation airports were represented, as were a number of other aviation professionals.

Air service cuts were Topic A of course. In addition, I talked to several airport leaders about the additional costs they face in meeting energy needs and other imperatives. Still, the mood was largely upbeat.

When I worked in state government in Virginia, we were told by businesses we tried to woo to Virginia that the two things they cared most about were transport links and education. That’s why we invested in the commercial service and general aviation airports in Virginia. Companies want to know they have a way to move their people and products. And the professionals I met in Martinsburg, W.V. last Monday night do a great job providing that service to the citizens of West Virginia.

I am writing this from the airport in Atlanta. I flew down here this morning to participate in an airport economic development and best practices conference organized by the airport, the city of Atlanta and UNITAR which is a United Nations training organization. Delta Airlines and SITA also sponsored.

This meeting featured aviation professionals from across the country. The Atlanta-based counsel-general from Canada also participated. There was a lot of talk about what people are doing to alter capital improvements and other plans in the face of the industry downturn. There was also a lot of discussion about providing security in a way that is passenger-friendly and helps enhance the economic development mission of the airport.

ACI’s World office also co-sponsored this meeting and I was thrilled to represent the ACI family.

By the way, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson has some of the best marked and cleanest restrooms of any airport in the world. These kinds of things make a big impression on passengers and it is noticeable.