Towering decisions

  • 28-Apr-2013 06:26 EDT
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According to the FAA, there are around 7000 aircraft in the air over the U.S. at any given time

For the first time since the initial 1998 release of the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in the most recent Report Card released in March 2013 the overall grade for the nation’s infrastructure improved from four years ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it improved all the way to a D+. The worse news is that the aviation didn’t even do that good, contributing a D to the overall infrastructure GPA. (For the record, the highest ranking score was a B- for solid waste.)

In an era when from school kids to scientists there is much energy and interest into the “next frontier” of aircraft and air travel that includes everything from UAVs to the commercialization of space travel and space tourism, it could appear that our industry is looking to get its driver’s license before it has mastered its tricycle.

While not meaning to downplay the difficulties of managing the National Aerospace System (NAS)—according to the FAA, there are around 7000 aircraft in the air over the U.S. at any given time—we didn’t go from 0-7000 overnight.

As part of its grading rationale, the ASCE cited data that commercial enplanements entailed about 33 million more in 2011 than in 2000. (An enplanement is defined as the actual boarding of an aircraft.) According to the ASCE, the FAA “estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012…the FAA anticipates that the cost of congestion and delays to the economy will rise from $34 billion in 2020 to $63 billion by 2040.”

Hence the D grade, one can assume, is from our lack of preparedness. To be sure, the human race has been dealing with solid waste much longer than it has been dealing with 7000 aircraft in the air. But, wouldn’t the changes that have allowed for extreme advances in aircraft technologies over the past couple of decades also have allowed for the advancement of control and coordination of said aircraft?

Without even bringing up the added complexity of managing the NAS with UAVs possibly gathering traffic data during ground rush hour and spacecraft possibly blasting off for Disneyland-Mars during airspace rush hour, how about considering the added complexity of, oh, say, 10% of air traffic controllers being furloughed on any given day.

While there were certainly some Chicken Little-types claiming that the sky was indeed falling the day that sequestration hit the FAA in late April, in all honesty, it really didn’t look all that different from any other day in the east coast skies. That is to say, there were plenty of delays, some “over an hour.”

Let me say that to this traveler, just an hour delay trying to get into or out of Newark or Philadelphia or La Guardia or JFK is the equivalent of what Christmas must feel to a five-year old child. In fact, it honestly seems sometimes that I’ve spent more time trying to get into or out of those airports in the past year than I ever spent in kindergarten.

There are many more problems with the management of the NAS than a 10% staff reduction. Yet, some have been arguing there are better ways for the FAA to cut the $600 million it needs as required by the sequester than furloughs, such as cutting money out of the NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System) budget.

Now, if there’s truly anything that will lead to an even lower grade on the next ASCE Report Card, it would be taking money away from the already painfully delayed NextGen program. If anything, the continued development and implementation of NextGen needs to be expedited, not stalled further.

According to a recent study by the Reason Foundation, closing over 100 targeted (and quite dated) air traffic facilities would generate approximately $1.7 billion in one-time savings, and, going forward, would contribute to productivity gains and reduced maintenance and facility costs by $1 billion annually.

Most important, according to Reason Foundation, "The days of air traffic controllers needing to be right below specific portions of the airspace are over. Today's technology allows air traffic controllers to guide planes from anywhere."

Logical, technologically sound solutions are available to solve airspace management issues. All we need now is someone licensed and knowledgeable in the driver’s seat to prepare us for the future.

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