- - Thursday, August 15, 2019


We often take for granted the reliable and relatively inexpensive air travel system in America and the air traffic control infrastructure that allows us to fly safely from point A to point B. As the number of planes in the sky and passenger miles flown continues to grow year after year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must keep pace with the speed of airspace innovation. A strategic direction and a steady, reliable source of funding to implement an integrated, secure and routinely modernized system is a commitment our nation can no longer duck. It is time to modernize the FAA.

As with anything related to air travel, safety and security are of paramount importance. We depend on the FAA to monitor and manage our airspace to prevent airborne accidents from occurring. While legacy systems were capable in the past, today multiple threats ranging from crowded airspace to cyber security attest that a commitment to upgrading our air traffic control systems can no longer be ducked. 

In just the last three years, the number of drones registered with the FAA has grown nearly three times to 1.3 million. That alone is a significant challenge to an already crowded airspace. In the first eight months of 2018, for example, 19.37 percent of all domestic flights were delayed, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Next generation upgrades are needed to cope with this growing airspace safety challenge.  

Other new technologies are escalating risks to FAA’s legacy systems as well. Air taxis, commercial space programs and dramatic increases in air traffic are all head winds to the FAA. Their systems are not easily upgraded or modified to adapt to rising airspace encounters. In fact, paying for sporadic patches to FAA legacy systems will only delay the inevitable. Investing in modernization is a much better value.

We can’t ignore the growing number of cyber attacks to our air travel infrastructure either. In one year, from 2017 to 2018 hacks focused on airlines and air travel increased by 15,000 percent. Systems built without cyber threats in mind are more vulnerable each day to this growing threat and should be upgraded to provide better defense against malicious attacks. 

One of the most frustrating things about flying is delays. We schedule our departure and arrival with family, friends or business associates because our time is valuable. It is valuable to us, to our companies and to the people we love. But travel delays are not just annoying to travelers — they also come with a cost. 

Last year alone, air traffic delays cost $28 billion to passengers, airlines and airports. That price tag will likely rise as we head into the future. Alternatively, a total of $20 billion in taxpayer investment is all that necessary to completely upgrade FAA systems through 2030. By making this one-time investment, we would not only save countless headaches but put real money back into the pockets of passengers and airlines. FAA modernization should not be the next big delay.

With FAA modernization comes exciting new ideas and technology. Cyber-security advances would optimize air travel surety. Equipment upgrades, machine learning and advances in artificial intelligence would significantly improve management of weather patterns. GPS integration would minimize travel disruption, tarmac stays, and circling for a landing slot creating a much more energy-efficient system. Air travel would be more comfortable and air transportation more certain. 

However, FAA modernization cannot be accomplished without revenue assurance. Historically, FAA budgets have been subject to the whims of political winds. It has been ever more uncertain for modernization of their legacy systems. If modernization is to be done correctly, then a funding path must be obligated for the next decade.

“Why don’t ducks fly backward? Because they would quack up.” It’s an old joke but there are aerodynamic reasons why ducks don’t fly backward: They can’t even hover in one place. It’s a silly metaphor to be sure, but the sentiment is similar to Federal Aviation Administration modernization. The FAA can’t go backward or even stay in one place, it has to move forward and modernize.

• Todd Tiahrt is a former member of Congress from Kansas who served on the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

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