U.S. air-traffic control badly needs first-class treatment. Donald Trump's administration wants to privatize the organization that coordinates flights and manages often antiquated systems. The Federal Aviation Administration, currently in charge, has faced obstacles in trying to upgrade its 1940s-era technology, a project estimated to cost about $35 billion. Canada pioneered a self-funding, stakeholder-governed model. A similar approach could work for the more complex American system if carriers, politicians and the like can dump their baggage.
In most ATC operations across the United States, flight patterns are still organized on paper strips and passed by hand from one controller to another. The old-school radar used to mark
There were nearly 40 million flight movements in the United States in 2015, according to the FAA. Of the much smaller number of commercial flights, over 80 percent arrive on time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but that's still a lot of delays. Though the FAA is gradually upgrading its technology, almost a quarter of the late arrivals are attributed to air-traffic control – and that doesn't include late-arriving aircraft, some of which may be delayed by ATC, as well. Those advocating for a new system – including airlines as well as the administration – say that the GPS capabilities of cell phones are more sophisticated than the technology that organizes U.S. air traffic.
An overhaul has been proposed multiple times since the 1990s, but policy and funding have been at the mercy of a dysfunctional Congress. The FAA was partly shut down in 2011 because of political budget squabbles, and in 2013 more than 15,000 employees, including 3,000 safety inspectors, were temporarily put on leave. Right now, Washington will probably rely once more on short-term budget extensions, and without a longer-term
It's true that plenty of other nations have jumped ahead with ATC technology. Dozens have upgraded their systems in recent decades. The UK is the only one that now has air traffic managed for profit within a public-private partnership, a model dating back to 2001. Other countries such as Germany and Australia have adopted government-owned company models, though Australia is considering a shift to something more like Canada's private, non-profit structure. A key feature that differentiates all of them from the FAA is that all of them are self-funded.