Airlines Look To Passengers in Fight for ATC Reform

 - September 14, 2016, 11:28 AM
Airline representatives characterize air traffic reform as vital to the economic health of the U.S. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-ND) by Islxndis)

U.S. airlines hope to reach out to millions of passengers for help in their fight for air traffic reform, JetBlue Airways president and CEO Robin Hayes told attendees of Tuesday's 2016 Airlines for America Commercial Aviation Industry Summit in Washington, D.C. Hayes insisted that airlines will continue to campaign for an independent organization to run the nation's air traffic control system and that airline customers could play a role in the debate. “We absolutely are not giving up on this,” he said. “We have to do a better job as airlines in engaging our customers and fliers and letting them know that the thirty-minute delay they just experienced or that canceled flight…is going to get worse...and the economic value that aviation brings to this country will start to get jeopardized by our inability to have a state-of-the-art air traffic control system."

Executives speaking at the A4A conference agreed that although the airline industry has reached one of its strongest and most competitive points in history, the future of the system remains hampered by outdated ATC systems that are inferior to those operated by other countries.

Hayes noted the block time to travel between New York and Washington has risen to 80 minutes, compared with 60 minutes some 10 to 20 years ago. “There is this big con going on,” he said. “We have to fix the system. We are going to mobilize and engage our customers.”

A4A president Nicholas Calio added that increasing block times to accommodate delays does not signal improvement. "Dysfunction in funding perfectly underscores the critical flaws in the current system," he said. "Absent modernization, we will most certainly face a shrinking system despite the increasing demand for air travel.”

National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi characterized the status quo as "unacceptable," noting that during a recent visit to a new control tower in Las Vegas, he was struck by the continued use of paper flight strips. “It really hit home to see these beautiful monitors, and shoved underneath those monitors are printers,” he said. He faulted a lack of priorities and bureaucratic processes for their continued use. “When [you] travel around the world and look at what our counterparts are using, especially in Canada and the UK…you just start shaking your head," he lamented. "We are the best…but we don’t have the best equipment."

Rinaldi said he supported any change that would help encourage ATC modernization, short of a "for-profit" corporation. Spinning off the air traffic control system into an independent organization, however, “is not a new concept,” he said, adding that such ideas have circulated for decades.

A4A chairman and American Airlines president and CEO Doug Parker echoed Rinaldi's sentiments. “There is simply nothing radical nor unusual about this concept,” he said. “There is little debate that we need to advance from World War II processes and technology," he noted, pointing to support ATC reform has received from past FAA administrators, controllers and administrations. "The question is…how quickly can we get there.”

Parker also said objections to the proposal include “myths and distortions" [by] "corporate jet lobbyists who accuse the commercial airlines of plotting to take over the air traffic control system through privatization in order to drive up costs for general aviation and squeeze them out. The notion that there is a hidden agenda to harm general aviation is pure fiction…We are huge supporters of general aviation.”

He also stressed the plan would not increase costs on general aviation.

He disputed other arguments, including that the system's complexity makes reform achieved by international counterparts more difficult to accomplish in the U.S. In fact, Parker stressed that the complexity of the system underscores the need for change. He also said concerns about the difficulties involved with transition should not discourage change. Parker further discounted arguments of Delta Air Lines, which broke away from A4A and has opposed the reform effort, that ATC hasn't caused delays, but rather the airlines' own scheduling problems. “It’s clear we have factions making specious arguments to hold off reform,” he said. “We are confident we can prevail."