Air Traffic System Is Outdated and Politicized

Early Thursday morning a computer glitch disrupted the nation’s system which handles flight plan processing for air traffic controllers. For nearly four hours, flight plans filed by many pilots had to be entered into the National Airspace Data Interchange Network by hand. The problem occurred at the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure center in Salt Lake City, and then the other center (in Atlanta) could not handle the workload by itself. Because planes cannot take off until their flight plans are in the system, the result was long delays for travelers thanks to the backlog caused by the manual entry of flight plans.

If you think this sounds familiar, you’re right. In August 2008, there was a similar failure at the Atlanta facility, with similar delays. And there were two such outages in September of this year, one at both locations and the other just at Salt Lake City. The big question is why these delays keep happening.

These problems are symptoms of an institutional structure that, despite some well-meaning reforms this decade, still cannot get the job done well. Consider that the old radar technology the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses to navigate $200 million jets is far less advanced than the GPS technology drivers can use to navigate $20,000 cars.

If air traffic control were being operated as a business, responsible to its paying customers, it’s inconceivable that there would not be 100 percent backup for the vital flight plan filing centers that caused these delays. At the very least, if one center goes down, the other should have the capacity to handle the full workload. More broadly, these problems reflect a system whose funding and governance does not make sense for a high-tech, 24/7 service business like the country’s aviation system.

The FAA is under way on what is projected to be a 20-year top-to-bottom revamp of the way it controls air traffic. Called NextGen, this new approach will largely replace ground-based radars and other navigation aids with GPS navigation, digital communications (rather than voice, for routine messages), and replace many routine manual operations with more automation. The cost is estimated at $20 billion for FAA equipment and facilities and up to another $20 billion for those who operate planes in U.S. airspace to equip aircraft with the necessary gear. While everyone supports this modernization in principle, it is correctly judged to be a “high-risk” endeavor by the Government Accountability Office. The FAA has a long track record of bringing in new technologies late and way over budget, though modest reforms this decade have actually made some improvements on recent projects.

The underlying air traffic problem is the mismatch between the system’s tax-funded, government bureaucracy and the needs of a high-tech service business.

In most businesses, a major technological paradigm shift, like that needed by our air traffic system, would be worked out and justified by the company and its customers, with a solid business case for making each investment, and mutual agreement on the schedule—so that customers don’t buy their gear way before the company is ready with its new facilities and equipment. And based on the customers’ willingness to pay, the company could go to the capital markets to raise the $20 billion in a timely manner. It could also crack the whip on program managers and contractors to get the projects done on-time and on-budget.

The FAA can’t do any of that.

It gets its capital budget in dribs and drabs from annual congressional appropriations, along with generous amounts of “oversight” (otherwise known as micromanagement). The current “reauthorization” of the FAA budget is over two years late, making any kind of long-term capital planning problematic. Plus, in calling the shots, Congress tends to resist cost-saving, productivity-improving measures such as automation and facility consolidation in the interest of preserving jobs in members’ districts. But without those kinds of changes, much of the increased-productivity benefits of the new technology go away.

Former Vice President Al Gore and a half-dozen national commissions have called for changing this model—making the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization a self-supporting business unit paid directly by its aviation customers and able to go to the bond market for capital funding. So far, none of these recommendations has gained any traction. Until they do, we are likely to be stuck with a status-quo that leads to outages, cost overruns, delays in new technology, and chronic delays for air travelers.

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