Home / Opinion / Commentary / Time has come to modernize the nation’s obsolete air traffic control system

Time has come to modernize the nation’s obsolete air traffic control system


Like so much of our nation’s critical infrastructure, our country’s air traffic control system is obsolete.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.

Mary Peters

Mary Peters

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.

Rep. Mark Cardenas

Rep. Mark Cardenas

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.)


  1. Ms. Peters,
    Your characterization of the ATC system is incorrect on most points. These same points have been trotted out every few days for the last year to support Bill Shuster’s latest bill, but their repetition in the news cycle has not made them any more true.

    First, though the system is not brand new, it is not obsolete. Switching to a GPS tracking system would not reduce flight times for the vast majority of airline flights. Airliners don’t “zigzag from one control tower to the next”; they already navigate by GPS. Getting a shortcut is dependent on weather, congestion at major airports, and controller willingness, not the method by which the airplane is displayed on the scope.

    The “failure to modernize” is not a major cause of delays. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, more than half of airline delays are caused by the airlines themselves, while another 30% of delays are caused by weather.

    Although every opinion piece favoring ATC modernization cries “World War II technology,” the dissemination and off-network aspects of the radar system provide significant security advantages.

    Of course, you are correct that the issue is a political one; the reader should ask, “How do those politicians who support modernization (and their friends) benefit from the effort?”

    – An air traffic controller

  2. As a pilot, aircraft owner and career-long avionics engineer, I have to say this is one of the most misleading and deceitful pieces of political propaganda I have seen in a long while. It is also riddled with factual errors—most commercial aircraft are already equipped with GPS, they don’t fly from control tower to control tower, and modernization is not just another political football, it’s been well underway for years now.

    HR 2997 does nothing to modernize air traffic control, it hands the U.S. ATC system over to a consortium made up of airline representatives with one goal in mind—maximize airline industry profits. The same people who keep cramming more and more seats onto the same old airplanes until normal people can’t even sit down comfortably.

    The FAA’s modernization program has been underway for years and is based on a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which works exactly as the authors lament that our ATC system should. It is based on GPS positioning of aircraft along with modern datalink communications technologies and gives pilots the same view of weather and traffic that ground-based systems provide today. But ADS-B will only work for traffic separation when all aircraft are equipped, so the FAA has mandated that aircraft operating in controlled airspace have compliant systems installed by the year 2020.

    A sizable proportion of business and general aviation aircraft are already equipped with ADS-B due, in part, to financial incentives provided by the federal government to operators that equip early.

    Who are the foot-draggers? The airlines themselves. Their focus is on maximizing operating revenue and profits and ADS-B doesn’t save them a dime over the system we have today. The airlines are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century by an FAA mandate.

    If HB 2997 passes, the airlines will control U.S. airspace and will have zero incentive to force themselves out of the 1940s technology they’ve already paid for.

    There will be no incentive for them to place nice with other airspace users, either. What would happen to our highways if all traffic was controlled by a consortium of trucking companies? Would their rules accommodate personal and business vehicles?

    Modernization is a great idea but HB 2997 won’t cause it to happen, even as it hands over the skies above us to an ever smaller group of corporate interests.

  3. A former Washington Politico advocating on behalf a private interest lobbying organization that wants to give control of taxpayer-funded infrastructure to a tri-opoly of private commercial airlines?

    Noooooo. What could possibly go wrong.

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