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.

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