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Is There an Air Traffic Control Crisis?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) touts America's airspace system as the safest and most efficient in the world. It's true that the government will stop at nothing to protect us from threats like bombs, guns and terrorism before we board a commercial flight. But what about fixing the country's antiquated air traffic control system, which has been largely unchanged since the 1960s? By failing to address this serious aviation safety issue, are we looking at an air traffic control crisis?

Thumbnail image for iStock_42387434_LARGE.JPGBefore Congress left for their summer break, members were supposed to come up with ways in which the FAA could be reformed and improved. Congress chose to essentially table the issue by passing a temporary authorization bill that funded the FAA for another year (the bill passed only two days before the FAA's legal authority was set to expire).

The bill provided measures to increase the number of bomb-sniffing dogs at airports, reduce the lines at security checkpoints and improve the vetting process for airport employees, but Congress ignored what is starting to become an elephant in the room-modernizing America's antiquated air traffic control system.

Staffing Shortages are Fueling America's Air Traffic Control Crisis 

By 2030, the number of air travelers flying around the world annually is expected to reach 6.4 billion. This boom in air travel is happening at a time when American air traffic control (ATC) staffing is steadily decreasing.

According to the Economist, the FAA has missed its staffing quota in each of the last seven years. As a result, the number of certified air traffic controllers currently working is the lowest the country has seen in 27 years. That number is only going to keep decreasing, as an estimated 3,000 certified air traffic controllers are reaching retirement age in the coming years.

What's Wrong with Our Air Traffic Control System? 

America's air traffic control system is essentially a tapestry of radio stations and radars, some of which date back to the Kennedy administration. Commercial flights and private planes are often forced to take zig zag routes from control point to control point until they reach their destination, this so they can stay visible to controllers and other aircraft. Because radar works based on line of site, controllers can also 'lose' aircraft that flies behind mountains or at a low altitude.

Under normal circumstances, it can take ATC ground controllers up to 30 seconds to locate a plane's echo transponder. After that, it can take an additional 12 seconds for radar to update an aircraft's position. By the time all of this happens, a plane may have moved by a couple of miles. This is why planes flying across the country have to remain five miles apart from one another.

What Are We Doing to Prevent an Air Traffic Control Crisis? 

The FAA has a modernization plan called 'NextGen,' which would transition American ATC from reliance on the ground-based radar system to a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which utilizes satellites and transponders to track aircraft movement. Implementing such a system would finally bring our air traffic control system into the 21st century.

Aircraft equipped with ADS-B transponders get precise location using GPS satellites. Tracking information is encoded with other data, such as flight number, heading, speed and any maneuver it is making in real time. All of this is broadcast to other aircraft and ATC ground stations within a 150-mile radius. This allows for planes to travel closer together without fear of collisions, and allows commercial flights the luxury of not having to zig zag to their destinations. In essence, the technology not only improves aviation safety, it also saves fuel and minimizes aerial traffic.

The technology has been around for years. It was originally conceived in the 1990s and testing was underway in the early 2000s. Canada, which manages the second-most air traffic in the world behind the U.S., has already implemented ADS-B technology to great effect. Canada's ATC system (which is not state run but private) is on track to roll out a system in 2018 that will relay the signal of any aircraft equipped with ADS-B flying anywhere around the world to air traffic controllers on the ground. Had this technology been in place in 2014, the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would never have been a mystery.

As for American air traffic control, implementation of NextGen has proven to be difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the expense. In 2012, the FAA said all aircraft flying in American airspace would need to have ADS-B transponders installed by 2020. The FAA has since backtracked on that target, saying 2025 is more realistic. A Wall Street Journal article indicated that even the 2025 target could be "off by as much as a decade."

Some may say that calling this an air traffic control crisis is hyperbolic. Maybe they are right. But in a decade, our air traffic control system will be in its 60s, and from the looks of it, little to nothing will be improved. Sure, we can figure out a way to bring on a new wave of air traffic controllers to fix the staffing problem, but many will be using flight tracking equipment that is older than their parents. If that isn't an air traffic control crisis, what is?

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