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Organization and Innovation in Air Traffic Control

Organizational reform is the key to a full embrace of advanced air traffic management in the United States

Robert Poole
January 17, 2014

Many new technologies, such as powerful computers in ATC facilities and collision avoidance systems in aircraft, have made air travel progressively safer and more reliable. But the basic features and procedures of the 1960s ATC system have remained remarkably unchanged through a half century of dramatic advances in technology and management in many other realms. And in recent years, the U.S. system has fallen well behind the capacity of new technologies to provide safer, faster, more reliable and more fuel-efficient air travel and to keep pace with the increasing volume of air traffic.

Our ability to provide a vastly improved system is not in question. Over the past two decades, aviation experts have developed a new air traffic paradigm—often called air traffic management, or ATM, to emphasize its use of much richer information than a single locus of “control.” Under this framework, technologies such as digital communications and GPS could facilitate automating much of the routine separation of aircraft, permitting far greater use of the entire airspace than the limited “airways” defined by ground-based navigation aids. New technologies and procedures would also increase the effective capacity of airport runways, improve landing protocols, transform staffed ATC facilities on the ground, and provide pilots with more accurate and timely information on weather and other variables.

Unfortunately, progress toward implementing advanced ATM in the United States (where the system is called “NextGen”) has been far slower than anticipated. This report uses case studies of seven critical elements of NextGen to examine the problems encountered in the U.S. effort:

Several important lessons emerge from these studies. The FAA is slow to embrace promising innovations that originate in outside research organizations or private-sector companies. When the agency does embrace something new, it has a hard time defining its requirements and often delegates this task to contractors—who come up with many add-on functions that increase cost and make implementation more complex. And the FAA does a poor job of procuring new technology, with many programs eventually cancelled or emerging years late at inflated cost. The agency is particularly resistant to high-potential innovations that would disrupt its own institutional status quo—such as performance-based navigation, real-time weather and remote towers.

This report identifies five institutional factors that account for the FAA’s status-quo bias:

These findings lead to the conclusion that reform of the U.S. air traffic system’s funding and governance—organizational reform—is the key to a full embrace of advanced ATM in the United States. The three necessary changes are:


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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