“Today we’re proposing to take American air travel into the future ... finally,” said President Donald J. Trump during a June 2017 press briefing at Cincinnati International Airport, while discussing plans to update and replace parts of the U.S. air traffic control system.
President Trump wants to upgrade and basically re-construct our current domestic air traffic control system, which manages the landing and take-off of dozens of thousands of commercial and civil aviation flights each day across our nation. During July of 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (F.A.A.) thousands of air traffic controllers voted to unionize. Then President Ronald Reagan fired all of the traffic controllers excluding managers, and then temporarily brought in formerly retired and military controllers from the Defense Department to block formation of the union while still safely managing air traffic, and until new traffic controllers could be trained and brought into the system. That was 36 years ago this summer.
However, the FAA’s current air traffic control system runs on ground-based radar and main frame computer systems no longer manufactured by anyone, and even older than that. And this ancient equipment (in some cases dating back to World War II) is a significant part of the back-bone of the only system preventing mid-air collisions as well as guiding aviation traffic during inclement weather, when pilot visibility is challenged and conditions in the air can become quite fluid. Better technology, available via satellite, has been available for decades, and is accessible to most every consumer with a GPS or GPS mapping system in their phone. A satellite-based air traffic control system has been in place for several years in Canada, where flight delays are much less frequent.
President Trump wants to create or sell the right to manage such a satellite-based system to a private enterprise. Fees for funding this new equipment, technology and a vastly improved system would come from the airlines and civil aviation. This system would be very similar to existing private sector ownership of our utility grids (excluding municipal power systems), cellphone towers and virtually all wireless network infrastructure as well as cable, and the wi-fi and satellite dish or radio systems and networks in your home or automobile. Each of those systems and networks are privately owned and operated.
There is also plenty of precedent elsewhere within our national security infrastructure of utilizing private sector vendors and contractors. Virtually every weapons system used by the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as most every battleship, fighter jet or tank is manufactured by the private sector, and then sold to the Pentagon and various branches of service. The President also indicated that the new company would most likely hire the bulk of existing air traffic controllers as well as accept its union. And the F.A.A. would continue to manage aviation and air traffic control system oversight, as well as numerous other aspects of aviation security on the ground.
So again Mr. President, I’m with you on this one, and bringing improved operations, enhanced safety and improving the speed of landings and take-offs with fewer delays. During inclement weather, this new satellite-based system would also be less prone to weather related service interruptions. And perhaps the best part is that there would be virtually no new direct costs for the taxpayers. This is one smart, business focused deal that could be a win/win. If only you can get out of your own way long enough to start building support beyond a single press conference during “Infrastructure Week,” and perhaps stop this flurry of self-inflicted wounds via off-message and off-point Tweeting.
And Mr. President, if you can get this one off the ground, there will be more columns in support like this one. This is both a safety and technological upgrade long overdue. And like your successful Supreme Court Justice appointment, it would be another substantive accomplishment involving more than just the executive branch of government. Wishing you luck with this one gaining momentum and some wind under its wings — and if you are successful, is there someone on your team I could chat with about the TSA sometime?
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. His columns will run on Tuesdays on a trial basis for the next month. To offer feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.