By Jim Hall
As our politicians in Washington bicker over health-care reform, the war in Afghanistan and soaring domestic unemployment, identifying national priorities on which we all agree is paramount. A prime example is investing in America: targeted investments that will create jobs, increase efficiency and ensure our safety. One such opportunity that has been long overlooked is our nation’s air-traffic control system, a critical part of America’s infrastructure.
Though we heard a lot about roads and rails in the rollout of the $787 billion stimulus package earlier this year, not a single penny was allocated to revitalizing our aviation infrastructure. Perhaps because they are invisible, our skyways were ignored and a golden opportunity to improve air travel was missed. This was not only a lost opportunity to create jobs and increase efficiency, it also further delayed an improvement to air safety that is long overdue. The recent glitch at a Federal Aviation Administration control center in Salt Lake City is but the latest symptom of an ailing system that is in desperate need of an upgrade.
Two weeks ago, a computer malfunction caused hundreds of flight cancellations and delays nationwide, further wounding an airline industry that already suffers myriad economic woes. When the failure of a small circuit board prevented flight plans from being automatically transferred from region to region, air-traffic controllers had to manually enter hundreds of flight plans. While controllers made necessary adjustments to ensure flight safety, clogged airports led to higher levels of stress for travelers and workers alike. Most importantly, such a glitch increased the likelihood of an accident occurring from human error in the data entry process. This is the second breakdown in less than 15 months, and another incident – with potentially disastrous consequences – could occur unless our airway system is revamped.
NextGen program awaits funding
Fortunately, a long-term solution to our airway infrastructure problem exists and is awaiting funding. This system is called NextGen, and it has been endorsed by aviation regulators and stakeholders alike as a technology that will greatly improve the efficiency, convenience and safety of domestic air travel.
NextGen represents a shift from ground-based control to satellite-based control and better uses GPS technology with aviation-focused applications. Such technology allows data communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, in addition to voice communication, significantly decreasing the risk of miscommunication between the tower and aircraft. This safety hazard was part of the cause of the horrible accident in 2006 of Comair Flight 191 in Lexington, Ky., which killed 49 people. This tragedy would almost certainly have been prevented had NextGen been in place.
A system makeover is not possible overnight, but with the stakes so high, the money and time we invest now will surely yield substantial benefits for years.
Unfortunately, this urgency is lost on legislators, as evidenced by the absence of funding for air-traffic control renovation in the stimulus package. This should be a concern to the millions of Americans who use airlines for travel or whose businesses rely on the quick and efficient movement of goods through our skies.
Our government must confront this issue for the sake of our nation’s future. As former President Clinton realized, “The future is not an inheritance; it is an opportunity and an obligation.” The sooner President Obama and Congress embrace this philosophy and commit to rebuilding our aviation infrastructure, the sooner our country will enjoy the safe and efficient air travel that we all deserve.
Source: THE TENNESSEAN