Yesterday's major outage at one of two FAA facilities that processes flight plans is yet another example of an air traffic control system that has aged beyond its useful life. Yes, the FAA promises to replace that particular "decades-old" system soon. But merely replacing componentsâ€“while necessary in the short termâ€“misses the point. Today's ATC system is built on a 1950s paradigm or concept of operations. Because it is so imprecise, it must create huge buffer space around each plane, wasting valuable airspace. All communications between ATC and planes go by voiceâ€“on frequencies that are jammed and relaying numbers that can be mis-heard. It is hugely labor-intensive, when software could accomplish many routine tasks in keeping planes safely separated. In short, we need 21st-century ATC, and we need it soon. But a cumbersome civil-service bureaucracy, funded in dribs and drabs by annual congressional appropriations, is more likely to impede that transition than to facilitate it. Fixing air traffic control requires major organizational and funding reform, as has already been done in Australia, Canada, and most of Europe. Sadly, Congress has ignored such reform ideas in its endlessly-delayed efforts at FAA reauthorization, now nearly a year overdue.
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