Les Abend CNN
What Trump doesn’t get about air traffic control
June 7, 2017
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  • I relaxed the pressure on the control yoke of my little Piper Arrow and leveled it at 4,000 feet. With a broad smile on my face, I scanned the display on my GPS.

    After a week at the avionics shop, my plane was now equipped with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast transponder, which was now showing me not only information about other air traffic in the vicinity but also displaying areas of red, green and yellow. These colors were the result of broadcasting US government NEXRAD, or Next Generation Weather Radar, information, a direct product of the NextGen Air Traffic Control system.

    This new equipment allowed the air traffic controller with whom I was communicating over the radio to see an instant display of my airplane’s registration number. Rather than being controlled by traditional air traffic radar, I had moved into the 21st century of GPS-based position reporting. My little plane now uses the same system I utilize when I fly professionally with a major airline. Very cool.

    Why share this anecdotal experience? Because despite President Donald Trump’s claims that the air traffic control system is archaic, its participants are using this kind of new technology. By 2020, all types of airplanes will be required to use it.

    Delays, diversions and gridlock are not the result of an antiquated system but rather the symptom of airline over-scheduling or Mother Nature’s wrath. Sure, air traffic control is not perfect. There is always room for improvement. But moving the system to a private nonprofit corporation, no matter what our President says, is not the answer.

    The satellite-based GPS NextGen system no longer constrains flights to use ground-based navigation stations that broadcast signals to airplanes. Airplanes can navigate directly to a virtual point in the sky, allowing for more efficient and precise use of airspace, both in the en route phase of a flight and the arrival phase. Many approaches to runways (at big and small airports) already make use of GPS procedures, all with a high degree of precision.

    And air traffic controllers perform the same basic job function: protecting airplanes from colliding with each other in the air or on the ground. NextGen and other technologies are making the controllers more reliable and increasing pilots’ situational awareness.

    Despite the arguments that other countries have implemented a privatized system so we should, too, the US airspace system is different. It’s large and complex, requiring the best technology available. I don’t see how a nonprofit private entity, supervised by interested parties such as the airlines, will produce a better product than the government. What is the incentive for a company to improve its product for no profit?

    Although Trump’s announcement Monday was short on specifics, he did indicate this nonprofit air traffic control system won’t be funded through taxpayer dollars. Really? That spells user fees. How exactly will user fees be structured and paid? Most likely the airlines will pass on the additional expense to consumers through fare hikes.

    For general aviation, which includes corporate flight departments and recreational airplane pilots, these fees could potentially be prohibitive and restrict the frequency of their flying. You may not care about the rich guy who flies his own airplane, but consider the fact that general aviation provides employment for a host of people involved in the service of airplanes — mechanics, airport fixed-base operations, aero-engineers, aircraft assemblers, fuelers and more.

    And another thing — folks who own airplanes aren’t all wealthy (trust me). Like anything else, they share a passion but have a threshold where the expense begins to outweigh the enjoyment. The ability to fly airplanes, mostly without restrictions, reflects our freedoms as a democracy.

    As Americans, we are fond of criticizing the bureaucracy of our government, sometimes justifiably. But in the circumstance of the air traffic control system, because it’s a vital part of our infrastructure, let’s leave the business of moving airplanes with the bureaucracy. Let’s investigate the inefficiencies and improve the system.

    I have flown all over the world. Whether using old technology or NextGen, our US air traffic controllers are the finest in the business. I have never felt that the safety of my passengers was in jeopardy. I trust the controllers with my life on every trip.

    A drastic change to a privatized organization is not the silver bullet. Government and industry cooperation with appropriate leadership is what’s required. I’m hoping that idea is not a fantasy with the present administration.