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Phoenix travelers deserve much-needed air traffic control reform

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Any traveler idling on the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport can credit our nation’s aging, antiquated air traffic control system for their hassle and delay in leaving the Grand Canyon State.

In fact, half of all flight delays are caused by air traffic control system constraints, and just as concerning, flight times are getting longer because controllers can’t keep pace with more congested air space.

With Congress now back in session, the House will soon decide whether to authorize the reforms our nation’s air traffic control system so desperately needs to effectively operate in an era of unprecedented passenger demand.

David Grizzle

David Grizzle

This is an issue of fundamental importance, not merely for the convenience of Arizona travelers, pilots and controllers, but for the health and durability of national security and our national and local economies. In Arizona, aviation accounts for 7.6 percent of the state’s GDP ($20.4 billion) and employs nearly 282,000 workers.

Having spent over three decades in the aviation industry, including three years as the chief operating officer for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) overseeing the country’s air traffic control system, I can say unequivocally that Congress must act now if we are to enjoy a modern air traffic control system able to handle today’s traffic without cascading delays, but also to handle the even greater traffic demands of the future. The House will soon hold a critical vote on the 21st Century AIRR Act, a reform measure that is long overdue to secure the future of American aviation.

Let’s start with the critical facts: Improving America’s air traffic control system is vital to our national interests. The economy does not work when we’re not flying, and it works significantly less well when we’re not flying efficiently. The FAA’s own numbers tell us that delays and cancellations cost our economy and our customers $25 billion every year. A 2013 United States Travel Association (USTA) report concluded delays and cancellations drove demand down by 8 percent and prompted passengers to avoid 38 million domestic air trips costing the American economy $85 billion and 900,000 jobs.

In recent years, Phoenix has seen fewer passengers go through its doors and is no longer one of the 10 busiest airports in the country. Passenger departures and arrivals at Phoenix fell 1.4 percent in 2016, the first decline in three years and the biggest decline in nearly a decade.

The debate lies in the proposed solution. Some argue that we need to keep the current structure in place and invest more in it. Unfortunately, that’s the equivalent of throwing good money after bad. Congress is already several billion dollars behind in getting systems for which they appropriated taxpayer money. I’ve witnessed the professionalism and dedication of our FAA employees and controllers firsthand. This is not an indictment of them — the problem is the inert procurement and financing structure that hinders modernization efforts. In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that the FAA can’t recruit new controllers. This is an unsustainable status quo.

The proper solution is credited to President Clinton, who proposed in 1993 establishing an independent, nonprofit entity to run air traffic control. The idea now has the support of the current administration, Speaker Ryan, forward-thinking Democrats and the unions representing air traffic controllers and pilots.

The opposition is largely driven by private and corporate jet interests, who are concerned that they could lose the substantial subsidy they receive to operate private jets that carry only a few people but take up the same airspace as commercial jets with hundreds of passengers.

Change is hard. But this decision is easy. We should not wait until the system is hopelessly broken before we act to fix it. Tell your local member of Congress to vote YES on the 21st Century AIRR Act.

— David Grizzle is the former chief operating officer for the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

4 comments

  1. Efforts to upgrade the U.S. air-traffic system are on budget and steadily improving flight efficiency, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released to Bloomberg Press . After nearly 2 years of study and interviews with dozens of aviation experts, the GAO found the claims of those promoting ATC privatization to be without merit.

    Adoption of ADS-B and other new technologies have saved airlines millions of dollars in fuel through improved routings and tighter spacing between aircraft. Delta Air Lines has seen an increase in daily operations of 6.8%.

    Mr. Grizzle’s claim that half of all commercial flight delays are ATC-related is simply false. More than 40% of delays are due to weather and 25% are caused by airline-controlled factors such as maintenance, crew scheduling, baggage loading, fueling, etc. Airlines typically cluster departure times for marketing reasons and then blame ATC when a half dozen airplanes cannot push back from their gates at the same time. In June, this practice caused 17 major airports to experience scheduled departures per hour that exceed the airport’s capacity. One recent Tuesday there were 57 scheduled airline departures from New York’s Kennedy airport between 8 AM and 9 AM–a dozen more than the airport can accommodate . The airlines deliberately planned to fail.

    The airline industry has been transparent in their greed for public airspace. Air Transport Association president James May claimed in an editorial in USA Today (8/8/17) that the solution is to “give commercial flights a higher priority than other system users to protect schedule integrity.” How many car drivers would tolerate a system that gave commercial trucks the right of way at every traffic light?

    The U.S. has the most advanced ATC system in the world. The AIRR act doesn’t fix ATC’s problems, it hands our public airspace over to a handful of mega-corporations interested only in their own bottom lines. It’s just the most recent example of industry-government cronyism.

  2. Until the airlines get their collective act together — stop scheduling and cancelling flights strictly in ROI terms — that is, maximizing shareholder profits — so-called “reforms” will only result in greater airline control of a formerly public service and inevitably, in time, ticket prices, and how air-controlling is paid for, higher costs to the public. It’s a simple equation. Figure it out yourselves.

  3. Mr. Grizzle is wrong on too many counts to rebut, however, the simplest retort is “It’s the runways.” Anytime anyone talks about aviation delays and doesn’t mention airline scheduling, they are trying to sell you something. Atlanta built a brand new runway, a significant increase in capacity. It didn’t require any new technology. Just concrete. Delays plummeted. Within a year, delays were back, simply because of the way airlines schedule their flights.

    ATC privatization won’t cure that problem. But it will make a lot of people in the aviation business rich.

    Don Brown
    Retired Air Traffic Controller

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