August 17, 2019
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It’s time to fix our outdated air traffic control system

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

You could say that aviation is in my blood. My father, Capt. Paul Willey, learned to fly under the Civilian Pilot Training Program in the late 1930s in Waterville. Too tall for military flying, he was assigned by the U.S. Army Air Corp to fly strategic commercial routes in South America, and he built a successful career that spanned 40 years of accident-free flying in some of the most dangerous routes in the world. In the 1960s, I also learned to fly in Waterville, where I worked as a line-boy at the airport, cleaning and servicing airplanes.

The world has changed a lot since my father got his start flying commercial routes in South America, but, believe it or not, our air traffic control systems haven’t. In a world where $150 smartphones have satellite-based GPS navigation systems, we still use 1950s-era radar and slips of paper to track the planes in our airspace. Our air traffic controllers do an amazing job with this archaic manual system, and our system is still the safest in the world, but it is not up to the challenge of efficiently managing the current volume and projected growth in America’s airspace.

The costs of this outdated air traffic control system are clear. Air traffic control issues are responsible for almost half of flight delays and cancellations nationwide, costing Americans $25 billion every year. The same flights now take longer and longer, because airlines have had to add flight time to account for air traffic control gridlock. These longer flights are more expensive because they waste fuel and capacity.

Small, rural states like Maine feel these costs the most because we depend on regional air service to connect small communities to wider markets. Regional carriers are at the end of the delay chain because small delays in the mainline system are magnified when trying to connect to these smaller carriers serving our state. The average U.S. regional airport has lost four departures per day since 2006, and our outdated air traffic control system is a major reason why. Service cuts have hurt thousands of people across the Maine, as many small airports have become too expensive to fly to.

Thankfully, we now have an incredible opportunity to modernize air traffic control and bring it into the 21st century.

Washington is considering bipartisan legislation that would put an independent nonprofit in control of our airspace. Modeled on Nav Canada, which Canadians created two decades ago to manage their air traffic control system, this nonprofit would be governed by aviation stakeholders and would manage air traffic control to the benefit of its users. This reform would remove air traffic control from political meddling and finally allow us to make much-needed investments in air traffic control.

Air traffic control reform will help travelers and airports throughout Maine and across the country. Passengers will benefit from faster, more reliable, less expensive flights. Maine’s many small communities, which have suffered because of dramatic service cuts over the last decade, would benefit from increased service. And even tiny airports like the Central Maine Regional Airport, for which I serve on the Airport Advisory Council, would benefit from reduced flight delays, making general aviation more appealing to average flyers who depend on the air traffic control system.

Unfortunately, not everyone supports this common-sense approach. Some are concerned about changes in the structure and funding for the system, but these problems can be solved and should not hold up this much-needed modernization. The air traffic control system in its present form simply cannot sustain itself.

Over the past 30 years, the federal government has made several attempts to upgrade our air traffic control system, but none have been successful. There is, however, some momentum in upgrading it through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, which was proposed several years ago. It’s time we take advantage of this initial success and pass much-needed reforms that will allow the agency to focus on what it’s best at — ensuring the safety of our airplanes.

Reform will help struggling communities across Maine, and across the country. As chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has a unique opportunity to support Maine’s flyers and bring our airspace infrastructure into the modern era. I hope she seizes this opportunity.

Mike Willey has been a pilot for more than 50 years. He serves on the Airport Advisory Council for the Central Maine Regional Airport in Norridgewock.


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