As the nation readies for one of the busiest travel periods of the year, now is the perfect time to ask Congress "Why is the United States the last developed country in the world to finally upgrade from 1950s air traffic control (ATC) technology?"
Think about it as you are sitting in an airport waiting on your delayed flight or when frustration sets in as you try to piece together your next trip away from home. Instead of having an ATC system that relieves congested airspace, efficiently manages planes on the ground and allows planes to operate confidently in inclement weather, the U.S. relies on a system other nations discarded decades ago.
While the air-travel experience continues to improve for most flyers, inefficient air service still costs consumers and businesses billions of dollars every year in lost productivity, not to mention aggravation. Modern technology, similar to what millions of Americans carry on their smartphones every day, inexplicably remains out of reach for the largest ATC system in the world. Americans can pinpoint their position nearly any place on the globe, but air traffic controllers still rely on paper readouts and voice updates to find airplanes in the sky.
In Illinois, surging passenger volume has led to an increase of the time to travel from Chicago's O'Hare airport to the nation's capital in Washington by nearly 10 percent in the last 20 years as airlines have had to increase the blocks of time allocated to on-ground operations and stack delays above the airport. With total air travel likely to surpass one billion passengers by 2025, our current problems are only going to get worse.
Our ATC system's inability to handle growth in air travel is costing us not only time, but also basic access to flights from our small to medium-sized communities. Towns in Illinois like Bloomington, home to State Farm; Moline, home to John Deere; and Springfield, home to our state capitol, all struggle to maintain adequate access to flights to serve their economies and residents. More efficient ATC will add capacity to the system and create potential access to more flights for these deserving communities.
Congress needs to elevate the national priority of air traffic control modernization. House Resolution 2997, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act is an important starting point for Congress to finally get its act together. It would provide consistent funding and competent oversight of the modernization effort through the creation of an independent, nonprofit organization to oversee daily management of ATC.
The Federal Aviation Administration has had a plan in place for years to get the U.S. system up to speed with our global competitors. Unfortunately, the effort has been blunted by bureaucratic inertia, lack of funding and intermittent congressional focus. The time is now to take a fresh approach to accomplishing a project that should have been completed years ago. HR 2997 is not perfect, and discussions should continue to improve it. However, the time for putting a stop to this embarrassing state of affairs is at hand.
America's citizens and economy deserve a truly world-class air travel system. Congress needs to roll up its sleeves, make modernization a priority and catch America up with the rest of the world.
Todd Maisch is the president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.