Rep. Bill Shuster: How to fix America's crumbling aviation system

The development of modern aviation is an American success story, but unfortunately, our once cutting-edge aviation system has not kept pace with advancing technology and needs.

Many domestic flights take longer now than they did decades ago  Two-thirds of our 20 largest airport hubs experience delays that are about 20 percent longer than they were a decade ago.  The economic costs of congestion and delays, including the impacts on passengers, top $30 billion per year.  As annual passenger levels approach one billion, the system will become increasingly inefficient, the costs on our economy will grow, and the headaches air travelers know too well already – delays, lost bags, cancelled flights – will become more prevalent.

This is why I am introducing the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act in Congress today.   This legislation will provide the transformational reform necessary to ensure America’s aviation system is ready for the future and is clearly once again the best in the world.

After three decades of efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to produce a modern air traffic control (ATC) system, we have to come to grips with the fact that the vast FAA bureaucracy simply is not a high-tech service provider.  This government regulatory agency is not set up to innovate, pursue cost-efficient investments, or manage people to produce timely results.

The FAA’s attempts at modernization have been extremely costly and unquestionably ineffective; government watchdogs have frequently highlighted the various missteps, cost overruns, and setbacks.  The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has stated that the implementation costs for NextGen (which is the FAA’s latest modernization plan) were initially estimated at $40 billion, but could ultimately cost as much $120 billion and may take an additional decade, by which time the technology will likely be obsolete.  We’ve got to do better.

The AIRR Act presents a solution.

The bill lets the FAA do what it does best – focus on the safety of U.S. air transportation – but it stops assuming that a government bureaucracy can act like a Silicon Valley company.  The AIRR Act establishes a federally chartered, fully independent, not-for-profit corporation to modernize and provide ATC services.    This corporation will be governed by a board nominated by the various users of the aviation system and the government.

This is a proven model that works.  Since 1987, more than 50 nations have shifted the responsibility for providing ATC services to an independent entity.  In fact, the United States remains one of the very few industrialized countries that has not done so, despite ample evidence from U.S. government and other reports that separating ATC operations has led to better performance on safety, modernization, service quality, cost, and financial stability.  Furthermore, this approach is also recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the international body that sets standards for aviation safety globally.

ATC reform under the AIRR Act has many benefits.

The new non-governmental air traffic corporation will have the agility to innovate and adapt that is lacking in any government agency, as well as the flexibility to borrow resources necessary to achieve the modern ATC system and air transportation network that continues to elude us.

With a more efficient system and effective use of the airspace, aircraft will be able to fly more direct routes, decrease flight times, and burn less fuel.

Consumers will experience more travel options and a reduced number of delays and cancellations.

And all Americans, whether they fly frequently, occasionally, or not at all, will benefit from the more focused, robust safety oversight by the FAA.

ATC reform is a key provision of the AIRR Act, but it is by no means the only reform.  The bill also includes sorely needed provisions that will cut unnecessary and economically crippling delays in the FAA’s processes for certifying new aviation technologies.  Other countries are more nimble when it comes to approving new equipment and aircraft, a situation that is stifling innovation and the competitiveness of American businesses in the important aviation industry.

Additional provisions in the bill further address safety, improved service for passengers, the improvement of our airport infrastructure, and the safe, responsible development and integration of drones into the airspace.

Ultimately, this legislation provides a framework that will allow the United States to at last achieve a 21st century aviation system and remain at the forefront of a vital mode of transportation and an industry we pioneered.