Community Voices: Let’s bring our air traffic control system into the 21st century | Community Voices

America pioneered aviation. Since the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, we have led the world in air travel. But, like most great American innovations, the passing decades have added bureaucratic morass and unnecessary costs that stifle productivity, burden the taxpayers and threaten our leadership in the world.

So it’s time to shake off the rust and modernize our country’s aviation system. Fortunately, Congress has the power to act now, but it needs to act quickly to turn things around.

The current system under the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t working.

Representing taxpayers here in Kern County, we should be concerned that despite spending billions of taxpayer dollars to try modernizing our country’s air traffic control system over the last 30 years, the system still depends on 1940s-era radar technology, while other countries are springing ahead with better systems at a fraction of the cost.

It gets worse: After billions in taxpayer spending, our air traffic controllers are still managing the movement of planes by manually passing paper strips from controller to controller.

We believe it is important to ensure every taxpayer in Kern County knows there is legislation that our congressional members can vote to support that will save taxpayer dollars and reduce the continual air travel delays.

Government agencies, watchdog groups and aviation experts have documented for years the FAA’s chronic inability to improve its air traffic systems. But it’s not for lack of spending. In 2009, the FAA unveiled its behemoth modernization campaign called “NextGen,” which proposes ongoing spending projects through the year 2025. So far, these “NextGen” projects have cost well more than $7 billion, without realizing any benefits for taxpayers or travelers.

Many of us have experienced the frustration when we drive down to Burbank or LAX: You arrive at the airport on time for your flight only to realize it’s been delayed again, and again, and again. And all the while, who takes responsibility for the delays? In fact, LAX has the fourth highest rate in the nation of total arrival delay minutes that is attributed to air traffic. The highest rate is at SFO — San Francisco International.

After spending $7 billion in taxpayers’ money, there is still zero accountability. Today, “NextGen” is widely regarded as simply a marketing ploy to keep Congress funding its failing projects. In fact, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation recently warned that if the FAA implements the full menu of its proposed “NextGen” projects, it will cost taxpayers as much $120 billion, and it will take an additional decade to complete. And by then, the technology will be obsolete. Our country is not on a forward-moving track when it comes to aviation upgrades.

The problem is a broken governance and financing structure that has changed little since the FAA was created in 1958. The agency is expected to operate as an agile high-tech service provider when in reality it is a lumbering government bureaucracy of nearly 50,000 employees. But the FAA’s difficulties should not be a surprise. When “NextGen” was launched nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report finding “the FAA faces cultural and organizational challenges in implementing NextGen capabilities.”

That is why I am urging our representatives in Congress to pass the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, or AIRR Act, which would cut the red tape in Washington and use commonsense management principles to put American jobs, American innovation and the traveling public first again.

The AIRR Act would establish a federally chartered, fully independent nonprofit organization to operate and modernize our nation’s air traffic control services. Rather than rely on a massive government bureaucracy, the AIRR Act’s nonprofit would be set up as a business with a CEO who is accountable to a board of directors chosen by aviation experts and users. They would have access to capital markets, the freedom to invest in a modern air traffic control system, and authority to make decisions based on realities in the market instead of dysfunctional political interests.

Importantly, the FAA would still have total authority to regulate air traffic for safety — it just wouldn’t be in charge of making improvements or, in the FAA’s case, spending billions of taxpayers’ money.

These changes would get aviation improvements back on track, and save taxpayers billions while ensuring a safe, efficient and modern air traffic system for America’s future.

Michael Turnipseed is executive director of KernTax.

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