Air traffic control must modernize or tourism suffers

August 17, 2017 | News-Press

Alan Clendenin

I urge Nelson to stand up to special interest and stand with the working women and men in aviation, the millions of us that fly coach, and support the 21st Century AIRR Act.

Like most voters, I've grown fed up with the spectacle that is the current White House. I believe a President should act Presidential and leaders should lead.

It is with that in mind that I recently attended a local hearing in St. Petersburg, held by Sen. Bill Nelson, to examine threats to Florida's tourism industry. The panel included Congresswoman Kathy Castor and Congressman Charlie Crist. I heard a lot of discussion during the hearing about issues that impact our tourist economy. One issue wasn't addressed or discussed: flight delays and the impact on tourism in our state.

Knowing the importance of our air traffic control infrastructure to Florida and our tourism, I was disappointed that modernizing our nation's aviation infrastructure was not discussed. 

Some context. The senator's hearing examined ways to improve Florida's tourism industry. As a lifelong Floridian, I know what tourism means to our state - it's the lifeblood of our local economy. It supplies more jobs and opportunity than any other sector, and while we all occasionally complain about tourists taking over some of our favorite local spots, we all benefit from being in a state that people want to visit.

Florida's tourism industry relies on access to convenient and efficient air travel. I spent 30 years as an air traffic controller, entrusted to ensure you and your family's safety in the sky. Fulfilling that trust became more and more difficult over the years. The problem: the technology and infrastructure we used when I started in the 80's hasn't changed much over the years. In fact, the basics of our air traffic control system have been around since World War II. 

The failure of the government to modernize our air traffic control system is hurting our economy. Without critical infrastructure and technology upgrades, flight delays are inevitable. The government's failure to upgrade navigational tools creates longer flight times in the air, as well as delayed departure, arrival and taxi times. These delays cause daily inconveniences and lost productivity, and for those of us that care about the environment, there is the wasted fuel and carbon emissions that result. 

There is a solution, the 21st Century AIRR Act that would create a nonprofit air traffic control organization free to develop, acquire and deploy cutting edge technology, leaving the FAA to do what it does best - regulate for safety.  

Nelson has consistently and adamantly opposed privatizing the FAA, but this new proposal is not like proposals in the past. Nelson has cited national defense as a primary reason for his opposition. Under the proposal, the defense of this country and the airspace is safe - the Department of Defense has wholeheartedly endorsed the proposal, along with virtually every aviation stakeholder including the air traffic controllers (NATCA), the pilots (ALPA) and passengers (Travelers United).

I would never support the privatization of air traffic control, but the proposal in question - the 21st Century AIRR Act - doesn't do that. It creates a federally-chartered nonprofit organization to manage the system, an organization free from government shutdowns and partisan games.

Despite the political drama and partisan divides, I still believe it's government's role to actually seek solutions and solve problems. We send our elected officials to Washington to stand up and support ideas that make our government work better. This is an important issue for Florida. Unfortunately, the special interest opposition - namely, private jet owners and their lobbyists in Washington - have spent a lot of money trying to maintain the status quo. Nelson will play a critical role in this debate. He has an important though easy choice to make - either he stands with us, the millions who fly coach and expect safe, convenient, and reliable flights - or he sides with the private jet owners who are fighting to preserve their corporate welfare.

I urge Nelson to stand up to special interest and stand with the working women and men in aviation, the millions of us that fly coach, and support the 21st Century AIRR Act.