Gingrich Is Off Base on Fixing the Air Traffic Control System

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in The New York Times Magazine recently:

“One of the projects I’m going to launch — we don’t have a name for it yet — is an air-traffic modernization project,” Gingrich told me excitedly. “You can do a space-based air-traffic-control system with half the current number of air-traffic controllers, increase the amount of air traffic in the northeast by 40 percent, allow point-to-point flights without the controllers having to have highways in the sky, and reduce the amount of aviation fuel by 10 percent. So it’s better for the environment, better for the economy. You have far fewer delays in New York, and by the way, you cut the number of unionized air-traffic controllers by 7,000. “Our thematic is going to be — you’re going to love this — that if you have an air-traffic delay that’s not caused by weather, take the extra time at the airport and call your two senators and your congressman and demand they pass the modernization act,” Gingrich enthused. “Now, notice what I’m doing,” he said, leaning back and smiling. “I’m offering you a better value.”

Gingrich is correct that a GPS-based air traffic control (ATC) system along the lines that’s been largely designed (under the rubric NextGen) could dramatically increase the productivity air traffic control.

But it will actually set back the efforts to implement this new paradigm if it is framed as a means of cutting the current workforce in half. One of the factors in the slow progress of the Bush administration on NextGen was the bad blood between FAA management and its unionized controllers—something everyone expects the labor-friendly Obama administration to work hard to fix. In fact, phasing in NextGen and phasing out the old, labor-intensive system, will probably take 15 to 20 years—in part because in order for it to work, tens of thousands of commercial planes and eventually all private planes will have to be equipped with expensive new gear in order to show up in the new (non-radar-based) system and to interact properly with it. During that time period, everyone expects air traffic to continue growing, probably doubling by 2025. So a doubling of ATC productivity would mean handling twice the traffic with about the same number of controllers as today. That’s a far different message than Gingrich’s glib line about cutting the current workforce in half.

The correct understanding – that NextGen is not a threat to ATC jobs – provides a much better basis for getting the controllers union engaged in serious efforts to prepare for this essential transition.