Time to fix air traffic control

Air transportation and the aviation industry are critical to the American economy. Aviation accounts for 5 percent of the gross domestic product, and by the end of the next decade, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that one billion passengers will be using the aviation system each year. We need to make sure the aviation system is not only safe, but significantly more efficient for the people buying tickets.

That is the goal of legislation I am cosponsoring that was introduced today in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act is a bill that will finally provide American travelers something they have been promised – and paying for – for decades: a state of the art air traffic control (ATC) system.

People watch as a United Airlines jet passes the air traffic control tower at Los Angles International Airport (LAX) during take-off in Los Angeles, California.
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People watch as a United Airlines jet passes the air traffic control tower at Los Angles International Airport (LAX) during take-off in Los Angeles, California.

Although the FAA has been trying to modernize America's ATC system, and shift to GPS-based technology, it has not succeeded. Despite multi-billion dollar modernization programs such as NextGen, our system is still based on radar technology from the World War II era.

One of the upshots of relying on this old technology is that aircraft frequently have to fly roundabout routes to get where they are going. It's a terribly inefficient use of the skyways. In general, flight delays, cancellations, and missed connections cost consumers almost $17 billion every year, according to the FAA.

Under reforms included in the AIRR Act, the FAA will no longer be responsible for trying to create a high-tech communications system – which is what a modern ATC system is. The FAA is a regulatory agency, and it will be able to focus on regulation and the safety of air travel. A non-profit corporation, with a board nominated by the aviation system users, will be established to modernize the system and provide more efficient ATC service.

The consumer benefits are real. With a modern, more efficient ATC system, aircraft will be able to fly more direct routes. More effective utilization of the airspace will increase the capacity of our aviation system, flight times and delays can be reduced, and travelers will witness more travel options. A more efficient system will also result in reduced aircraft fuel consumption, emissions, and noise.

Virtually every other industrialized country in the world has adopted some form of this ATC model, and it works. It's time the United States follows suit. Among the benefits many other nations have realized: better and modernized service at a reduced price.

For example, in Canada, where ATC service has been corporatized, current charges for air traffic control service are 35 percent less than under the country's old ticket tax. Due to efficiencies and cost containment, Canada has not seen an increase in its service charges in 11 years. In fact, two reductions have occurred during that time. Due to efficiencies and cost containment, NAV CANADA has not raised its service charges in 11 years, with two reductions during that time.

The AIRR Act contains a number of additional provisions that will improve the flying experience for consumers.

Under the bill, airlines must refund baggage fees to passengers when bags are lost or delayed for more than 24 hours, airlines are required to provide every passenger an explanation of their consumer rights, and the Department of Transportation is asked to establish a smartphone app for consumer complaints.

The bill extends a consumer protection panel that advises the Department of Transportation, requires every large and medium hub airport terminal to provide private rooms for nursing mothers, and ensures that families booking flights are notified – before they buy – in the event that their tickets will not be next to each other. The AIRR Act also prevents cell phone use for voice calls during flights.

The constituents of South Florida I have the honor to represent in Congress rely heavily on travel and tourism, and by delivering a world-class ACT system, we can ensure that our region remains a beacon of economic opportunity. Miami International Airport serves as a gateway to the world, with a lineup of over 100 air carriers while being the U.S. leader in international freight traffic.

In addition, general aviation airports such as Miami Executive, Marathon, and Key West play a crucial role in connecting passengers and trade with countries throughout the Caribbean and South America. It is in our collective interest to make our nation's air travel system the best it can be, while also making our region an even more attractive place to visit.

With hundreds of millions of consumers – and counting – taking to the skies every year, it's important that they can finally benefit from advanced air traffic control technology, that they get to their destinations as safely and efficiently as possible, and that they receive the best service possible.

Commentary by Congressman Carlos Curbelo, member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He represents Florida's 26th Congressional District. Follow him on Twitter @RepCurbelo.

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