Like so much of our nation’s critical infrastructure, our country’s air traffic control system is obsolete. For the two million Americans and thousands of Arizonans who fly every day, the failure to modernize the way we fly has real consequences: frequent delays, longer flight times and higher costs due to wasted fuel and the upkeep of a system that is no longer supported by any American supplier of IT equipment.
For 30 years, Washington has debated what to do about this problem. While the debate offers a good window of what’s wrong with our politics, it should also give us some hope about what the future may hold.
Let’s start with some context. The current system relies on World War II era radar technology. Whereas we have GPS in virtually every consumer electronic device imaginable – from phones to refrigerators – we don’t on our airplanes. That means instead of having satellites looking down on our airplanes providing instant and exact location data, air traffic controllers are looking at blips on a screen that only give proximate locations and update every 12 seconds – an eternity when your moving at 500 miles per hour.
The result of all this means that planes don’t fly in direct routes – they zigzag from one control tower to the next adding time to your flight. The other result is that controllers have to keep planes farther apart to avoid collisions. With the number of people and the number of flights increasing every year, our current system is incapable of keeping pace with demand.
So where does that leave us? In 1993, President Bill Clinton first proposed separating the air traffic control function from the agency that currently oversees it – the Federal Aviation Administration. Airlines, labor unions and politicians wary of losing power to control billions of dollars in funding balked. Today it’s the same story with a few important differences – instead of a Democratic president proposing the solution, it’s a Republican one. And instead of opposing the reforms, the airlines and the unions now support the effort, because they recognize that the failure to modernize will undermine the future of American aviation.
Predictably, the issue has gotten caught up in political games as is the case with most important issues in today’s Washington, D.C. That’s unfortunate and it’s a disservice to the American people. Thankfully, Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema has shown leadership on the issue and has put her name on the legislation that would fix the problem. It’s that kind of independence and dedication to doing what’s right instead of playing political games that gives us hope we can break free from the long political darkness gripping Washington and elect candidates who will embody what it means to be a public servant.
— Mary Peters is a former U.S. secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush and co-chair of Citizens for On Time Flights.
State Rep. Mark Cardenas, a Phoenix Democrat, represents Legislative District 19.
(Editor’s note: Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., joined Sinema in co-sponsoring HR2997, legislation to modernize the air traffic control system.)