The Metro subway system in Washington, D.C., is a national disgrace. The U.S. secretary of transportation has even threatened to shut it down unless its safety problems are repaired. Thousands of commuters and tourists would be disadvantaged if that happened.
Sadly, Metro’s problems aren’t different in kind than the woes of a much bigger and more important transit system, the air traffic control (ATC) system that guides millions of passengers to their destinations each year. No one is thinking of shutting down U.S. airspace, but unless improvements in technology and staffing are implemented soon, the nation’s capital could have a second disgrace on its hands.
The ATC system is at a crossroads. It has been subject to stop-and-start funding for years. As a result, air traffic control facilities are chronically understaffed. In addition, long-overdue technological upgrades known as NextGen have been delayed, stifling the air traffic expansion that is vital to economic growth. If these twin problems of staffing and technology continue unabated, the consequences could be dire.
The worst setback occurred in 2013, when automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration halted the hiring of new air traffic controllers for a year. Even worse, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees and operates the ATC system, had to furlough controllers. The result: extensive delays across the country in passenger and cargo flights.
The consequences of sequestration still ripple through the system. The hiring freeze has left many air traffic control towers and radar facilities critically understaffed. In fact, the ATC system has the lowest number of fully certified professional controllers in more than a quarter-century. On top of that, the FAA has missed its air traffic controller hiring goals for seven years in a row, and staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent over the last five years. Air traffic controllers are working longer hours and additional days to make up for the shortage. This has led, inevitably, to exhaustion and controller fatigue on the job.
The ATC system is also technologically behind. It’s running on World War II-era radar technology with information being passed around on slips of paper. NextGen, a series of technology upgrades that are slowly being integrated, would track planes from satellites, not the ground. This would not only be more effective, it would also be more efficient. Because it’s an entirely new system, everything would be monitored digitally — as it should be these days.
The ATC system’s parallels to Metro’s decline are eerie. The Washington Metro’s biggest problem is deferred maintenance due to chronic underfunding. In addition, the system’s funding was inconsistent and unreliable. Management didn’t insist otherwise. For example, Metro failed to fix the tracks that were found to be unsafe in July 2015. These particular problems ultimately caused a train to derail the following month, according to The Washington Post.
Unlike most transit agencies, Metro gets nearly half of its budget from different jurisdictions and the federal government. This means its budget isn’t consistent from year to year. By one estimate, Metro would need $25 billion over the next 10 years to maintain its service as well as fix its operations and meet safety standards.
The federal government can’t afford to allow the air traffic control system to go the way of Metro. The United States has the safest and most efficient air system in the world. It can never be endangered or compromised. The ATC system’s funding can’t be interrupted or reduced again. Investments in both the controller workforce and the technology that controllers use must be stable and predictable moving forward.
No one wants the air traffic control system to become the Metro of the skies. Congress must act now.
• Paul Rinaldi is president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.