Congress Is About to Screw Up the Safest Aviation System in the World

It's hard to argue with the basic facts that the United States manages the safest and most effective aviation system in the world. While we all like to complain about delays and customer service, the industry moves more than 800 million passengers every year. Who could screw up that record? It appears our own Congress is attempting to.

The nation that has done an amazing job, however the aerospace world stumbles forward each day without a clear national aviation policy. We are at a critical point in our nation's aviation history and we need to look at where we are headed. We must address -- today -- how air traffic control will move into the 21st century, how we are going to recruit people to become pilots amidst a national pilot shortage and how we can jump start our aircraft manufacturing industry.

Let's start with the recent move in Congress to privatize air traffic control, which is a proposal that is currently in front of the House Transportation Committee. Currently, Air Traffic Control is managed by the FAA, with some airports employing private contractors. However, even these airports are all overseen by an agency- that while sometimes maligned- gets the job done.

News coverage seeks to tell only part of the story: that the real goal of privatization is purportedly to increase efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayer. In reality, if this measure passes, the taxpayer will be paying in other ways. Along with privatization will come "user fees"--a tax by any other name. There will likely be fees for using air traffic controllers, filing flight plans or simply getting weather reports. Why is it that the major commercial airlines support this effort?

Airlines support user fees because it will crimp competition from general aviation. Small, general aviation businesses (from flight schools to charter companies) that already struggle to make ends meet, will be forced to pass those (potentially substantial) fees onto customers--who in turn may and likely will fly less frequently. This will cost jobs. The general aviation industry employs a million Americans and generates $200 billion in economic activity annually. The current system is funded by a fuel tax- that everyone pays- and report after report shows that it supports the FAA adequately. Proponents of privatization point to Canada, which turned over air traffic control to a quasi-private-government managed entity. The U.S., however, has about eight times the amount of air traffic as Canada in a far more complex airspace.

Beyond the practical, there are philosophical reasons to oppose privatization. There are responsibilities the Federal Government is uniquely -- and only -- qualified to perform. National defense is at the top of the list. The nation's airspace must be considered part of that national defense -- both military and economic defense -- and no private company or hybrid entity should be overseeing it.

The fight over the national airspace policy is only one challenge that faces an industry that wakes up every morning to a slew of them. We must develop a national policy to recruit, train and keep new pilots. News reports and articles in industry trade publications, including Aviation Week and Airways News, indicate that we are facing the greatest shortage of pilots in history. Many smaller and larger airlines have grounded planes and stopped flying routes because they can't find qualified people to fly the planes.

Any industry that faces a labor shortage must ultimately look to itself for the reasons--but it's time to come together with government to help generate solutions. I assure you that if people walked into a hospital and were told "sorry, there isn't a doctor to help save your life from a heart attack," the voters would be clamoring for immediate action. That's a similar crisis we face now in the air transportation sector. We need to pay pilots better (and regional airlines have been raising wages) and we need to improve the culture at many airlines so pilots aren't afraid every time the price of oil goes up a buck (and eventually oil will only go up). We also need a holistic national policy--possibly tied to STEM education--to bring fresh blood into the system and convince today's youth that aviation offers a good future. Today 96% of pilots are men and just 3% are African Americans. We need to look to change recruiting approaches and focus on diverse communities. This is where we will find tomorrow's aviators.

Finally (not really finally, the list is so long and I only have so much space), the FAA needs to implement a demand from Congress and the President to rewrite regulations involving building and certifying new aircraft. In many ways, America is back in the manufacturing industry, which has been growing after decades of decline. This is not the case in aviation. President Obama directed the FAA to reduce the regulatory burden on those building new planes in 2013 with a December 2015 deadline for the FAA to implement the changes. The FAA missed the deadline. We certainly need strict standards on airplanes, but the current rules are decades old, don't reflect super-fast advancement in technology and arguably prevent manufacturers from deploying new safety features since they are harder to get through the regulators.

There is no question the FAA needs a wakeup call and a clear vison for the future. The Department of Transportation's own Inspector General issued an audit report last week saying that while the agency's operational budget has doubled since 1996, productivity has actually declined. And the IG blamed internal resistance to making changes. This is where the FAA needs to turn to outsiders for help.

Aviation is complex. It needs to go right every time and on every day to keep people safe, get them to where they are going and drive the economy. We need solutions. We need a policy that is deeper and forward looking which relies on more than simply privatizing a key portion of the industry.