U.S. News & World Report | Robert Puentes and Rui Neiva

September 01, 2017 | Robert Puentes and Rui Neiva

U.S. News & World Report

Thanks in part to lower airline tickets, experts are warning of record traffic in the skies this Labor Day weekend.

While the airlines will likely add seats to meet the demand and minimize delays, the same can't be said for our nation's air traffic control network. The system that oversees how all those planes and passengers reach the ground safely is in dire need of an overhaul.

For decades, the nation has tried to modernize air traffic control from the current ground radar-based navigation system to one that relies on more precise satellite-based navigation. It is widely understood that this so-called NextGen system would increase on-time arrivals, boost capacity and save fuel by allowing planes to fly more direct flights and closer together.

Part of the reason we remain behind-the-times is that, unlike most other developed nations, the Federal Aviation Administration operates and regulates air traffic control. Since the federal push to develop and implement NextGen began in earnest in 2003, the FAA has spent more than $7 billion of taxpayer money with little to show for it. The number of delayed flights is proof of that.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that one in five flights arrives late to its destination. Flights are considered late when they arrive 15 minutes or more after their schedule. What's more is that that figure practically unchanged over the past 15 years. While flight delays are certainly a headache and an inconvenience to passengers, they also come with an enormous economic burden to the nation.

Since 2003, our outmoded air traffic control system is responsible for around 50 percentof flight delays. This includes lack of capacity in the air and on the ground, as well as weather-related delays that could be avoided if better technology was available. Airlines for America, a trade organization for passenger and cargo airlines, recently calculated that those delays represent a $1.8 billion hit to passengers every year. The estimate takes into account the 388,000 hours of air traffic-related delays in 2016, an average of 101 people in each plane, multiplied by $46 per hour, per passenger.

That valuation of time figure may seem high at first glance, but it is right in line with what the federal government uses to calculate the benefits of transportation improvements. It is also the same figure the FAA uses to estimate the worth of NextGen investments to date. Passenger time savings are so important that if they were omitted from these calculations, NextGen would actually show a negative return-on-investment by 2030. (With those time savings, the FAA estimates $54 billion of positive return.)

This is why reform is so critical. Proposals to spin air traffic control off to an independent, non-profit entity (similar to the Canadian model) would allow for the quicker deployment of NextGen. That, in turn, would sharply reduce the delays currently associated with the current antiquated system.

So, if it's that simple, why can't the FAA just develop NextGen itself and run air traffic control more efficiently? The problem is that it actually isn't that simple. As a federal agency, the FAA is subject to a number of intractable burdens that come with being a Washington bureaucracy and are largely outside their control.

Ironically, one of the major roadblocks for the FAA is Congress itself. Under the current framework, the legislature must authorize all the funding for the provision of air traffic control with decision making shared among five different committees in the House and Senate. This sets up constant battles between the authorizers and the appropriators about what can be spent and who pays for what. This kind of sausage-making may be the new norm in Washington but it is incompatible with what a national commission referred to as a "24 hour-a-day, high technology, rapidly changing operating system for a major commercial industry".

An independent air traffic control operator, albeit under the tight safety oversight of the FAA, would have an independent budget that does not depend on the unpredictability of Congress. Providing airspace stakeholders an opportunity to be represented on its governing board would ensure that the system would be run based on the interest of its users and would facilitate modernization.

The end result would be a more efficient and stronger national aviation system and – importantly to travelers – fewer delays.