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My view: Modernize air traffic control to keep Salt Lake City Airport on time

For Salt Lake City (not pictured) to maintain its enviable on-time record, and to improve it for those of us who travel to other locations, we need to ensure that air traffic controllers have the tools they need to do their jobs.
For Salt Lake City (not pictured) to maintain its enviable on-time record, and to improve it for those of us who travel to other locations, we need to ensure that air traffic controllers have the tools they need to do their jobs.
Adobe stock photo

Salt Lake City International Airport consistently rates among the top in the nation for on-time flight performance. That's good news for the 21 million passengers who use SLC each year. It's also welcome news to the businesses and consumers who depend on the facility to ship more than 328 million pounds of cargo annually.

Unfortunately, many of the airports that connect Salt Lake City to the rest of the world don't share that same record of success. While our airport approaches 90 percent on-time performance, travel hubs like LaGuardia in New York remain mired in the low- to mid-60 percent range.

Many of these delays are unrelated to weather or other external problems, and they could readily be eliminated by upgrades to the antiquated air traffic control technology currently in place. Rather than using modern GPS technology, which many of us rely on every day, planes use ground-based radar originally developed for World War II. Even the weather reports used by air traffic controllers rely on dated technology.

Clearly, an air traffic control revamp is in order.

The Federal Aviation Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA developed a better weather reporting system — known as NextGen Weather — that can provide more accurate and reliable real-time information for aviation.

Unfortunately, the adoption of NextGen Weather has been slowed by the constant budget tug of war that has existed for many years in Washington.

Federal reforms aimed at improving the air traffic control system are also falling victim to budget battles and bureaucracy — the same scenario responsible for grinding the implementation of NextGen Weather technology to a halt.

This is nothing new for the FAA. An inspector general's report found that when the government gets involved in trying to improve air travel, the results are often dreadful. Previous FAA reforms have failed to achieve cost, efficiency and modernization goals.

To make matters worse, sequestration and furloughs have turned the FAA's focus toward survival rather than planning for the future. That's not good news for air travelers or cargo carriers.

Reform is the only way to bring stability and 21st-century technology to the air traffic control system. More than a decade ago, Canada pointed the way to the most effective model: an independent, not-for-profit ATC operation.

For Salt Lake City to maintain its enviable on-time record — and to improve it for those of us who travel to other locations — we need to ensure that air traffic controllers have the tools they need to do their jobs, including modern GPS and weather prediction capabilities.

The revamped ATC organization, governed by key stakeholders, would be charged with modernizing our air traffic control systems and effectively providing air traffic control services to the public. Representatives from government, airlines, labor and general aviation would all have a seat at the table. This group would ensure the new system protects the public interest and users of the system.

Financial stability would be achieved by utilizing equitable user fees as a funding source, rather than fickle taxpayer dollars that all too often get diverted to other causes. Air transportation remains far too important to the American economy to allow political gamesmanship to threaten efficient operation.

The FAA would maintain an important role in air travel. Freed from the demands of daily operations, it would be able to take a longer view in providing the safety and regulatory framework that cannot be overlooked. With this singular focus, it would be positioned to protect the excellent safety record our nation already enjoys.

With thousands of air traffic controllers on the verge of retirement, we can't wait any longer to take the needed steps to modernize the current system. That will help the existing workers do their jobs more effectively, but it will also entice younger people to choose this vital profession.

To get to distant destinations on time, to receive our packages when they're expected and to ensure the safety of our skies, we need to work together in encouraging Congress to reform the FAA. If we follow the successful model implemented elsewhere, including adopting an independent not-for-profit organization funded through user fees, U.S. air travel will be positioned for strength and stability.

Salt Lake City Airport can't keep up its strong on-time performance if the infrastructure behind it is allowed to crumble. The time to achieve modernization has come — the future of America's air travel depends on it.

Stan Swim is chairman of Sutherland Institute, a nonpartisan, state-based public policy organization located in Salt Lake City.