Ask the pilot

To President-elect Obama: From air traffic control to security, here are six things we should do to improve the state of our skies.

Published November 7, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

Dear President-elect Obama:

On the bright side, air travel in America is safe, inexpensive and, for the most part, convenient. Our accident statistics have been outstanding over the past several years, and the average airline ticket costs about what it did in the 1980s. Once the province of only the elite few, flying is now affordable to virtually every citizen. But we are faced with serious problems: We are slipping behind much of the world when it comes to the state of our air traffic control (ATC) system. Much of our airport infrastructure needs repair. Regulatory oversight is often ponderously slow, and our airport security apparatus is horrendously wasteful. For the good of the country, these and other issues will have to be addressed in the months ahead, and we trust you will give them due attention. Here is a look at each in a bit more detail.

1. ATC and airports

The country's antediluvian ATC system is grossly ineffecient and prone to expensive breakdowns. Although modern aircraft are equipped with advanced navigational equipment, the underlying network still requires pilots to navigate much the way they did a half-century ago, relying on antiquated, point-by-point routings that waste millions of gallons of fuel each year and add to delays. The groundwork for improvement is already in place. The so-called NexGen (Next Generation) initiative will move ATC toward a streamlined, satellite-based system incrementally over the next several years. But if the current predictions of air traffic growth are anywhere near accurate, we need to move faster.

Meanwhile, runways and taxiways are in increasingly poor condition, and many airports lack ground surveillance radar, stopway barriers and other safety equipment. (Despite our excellent track record, the sharp increase in air traffic has pushed many airports to the brink of saturation, increasing the chances of runway collisions and other hazards.)

The big question is where funding for all of this might come from. For starters, we should mandate higher user fees for private and corporate aviation, as well as consider an increase in airline ticket surcharges. Ticket taxes earmarked for ATC upkeep and improvements are already in place, but they are insufficient and money is often diverted to unrelated programs. While it's bound to be controversial, an increase of just 25 cents per ticket would raise an estimated $180,000,000 annually for badly needed upgrades.

Modernization will be a large-scale and costly project, yes, but the end result will add billions to the economy through improved efficiency and time savings, not to mention potentially saving lives. 

2. Delays and congestion

None of the above, however, is alone going to solve the problem of delays and congestion. In addition, we need to address the unsustainable scheduling practices of the airlines. We can modernize ATC to our hearts' content -- and we should -- but an airport can only accommodate so many arrivals and departures in a given amount of time. Over the past two decades, airlines have come to rely on frequency of service as the holy grail of marketing. There are more people flying than ever before, and they are doing so in smaller planes making more and more departures, snarling our skies and tarmacs. Short of building new airports, delays won't go away until carriers better rationalize their schedules, and/or begin consolidating flights with bigger aircraft, reducing their dependence on regional jets.

I am unsure how a new administration might help this to happen. Do we partly reregulate the industry, limiting the number of takeoffs and landings at the busiest airports? Do we proceed with controversial slot auctions? I recommend creating a task force to help come up with a fair and equitable solution. Airlines may need some tough love on this one. In the long run, they and the rest of us will benefit. 

3. Regulatory rigmarole

Progress with items 1 or 2 above would likely be speedier if we had a more user-friendly Federal Aviation Adminstration. The FAA does a decent job when it comes to safety, but the agency is fond of overly complicated fixes to simple problems and, in quintessential bureaucratic fashion, is obsessed with regulatory minutiae at the expense of common-sense, big-picture solutions. (For passengers, one easy-to-spot example of this is the seat pocket card outlining eligibility to sit in an emergency exit row. Or check out the latest volumes of the Federal Aviation Regulations for airline crew members, a thousand or so pages of regulatory arcana that could quickly be pared to about 10 percent of its size.) FAA operates under the auspices of the Department of Transportation. I have no idea who the new president might have in mind for DOT secretary, but I'd recommend somebody young, ambitious and progressive, who can steer both of these bodies away from their old-school methods of thinking.

4. Cabotage beware

The trend globally has been one of liberalized, so-called open skies agreements, which have thus far been welcomed by most participating nations and their carriers. But while loosening the rules for flying between countries is one thing, loosening them within countries is something else. There are those who believe it is in America's best interests to open up our domestic system to foreign airlines. All things being equal (wages, reciprocal rights, safety standards, taxes and so on), this might not bring on the catastrophe some warn of (that is, the collapse of multiple carriers and the offshore outsourcing of their labor force). But they are not equal, and strong protections should remain in place. In a business with minuscule profit margins, in a downsliding economy, dogfights with well-funded foreigners will not result in U.S. airlines' bettering their product to remain competitive. It will result in them going out of business. 

5. Airport security

Then we have the state of airport security, arguably the one full-blown crisis facing the industry and its customers. Please, Mr. President, for the love of country, do something, anything, about the Transportation Security Administration.

The fundamental problem, discussed in this column many times, is the agency's relentless fixation with the in-flight takeover scheme last perpetrated on Sept. 11, 2001; that is, the fallacy that physical weapons, rather than the element of surprise, were ultimately responsible for the hijackers' successes on that day. In truth, the hijackers' possession of box cutters was irrelevant -- a deadly weapon can be fashioned from virtually anything, including many objects and materials found on planes -- and for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the confiscation of pointy objects at the concourse checkpoint, the 9/11 blueprint is all but off the table to a would-be saboteur. Yet we continue to devote our money and resources toward the preposterous and ultimately unattainable goal of keeping any and all weapons out of the hands of passengers. In doing so, we are forced to treat every last flier, regardless of age, race or gender, as a possible terrorist or criminal, resulting in an apparatus so massive and cumbersome that it cannot adequately enforce the very policies it claims are so important. Civil liberties are subverted, billions of dollars are wasted, and millions of people are hassled and inconvenienced, all with little or no effect on actual safety. It is a national embarrassment. If your administration is to represent a more reasonable and enlightened America, here is a good place to start. 

What we need is a TSA willing to concede that the real nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes take place well out of view. We need to immediately rescind most of the rules restricting sharp objects and liquids, with a return to basic screening for firearms and bombs. With respect to the latter, the emphasis should be put squarely on improved anti-explosives screening of all luggage and cargo.

And although the attacks of 2001 took place on U.S. soil, the greater threats are at airports abroad. American carriers now operate throughout Asia, South America, Africa and beyond, where they remain potentially high-profile targets for extremist groups or rogue terrorists. Here we are confiscating scissors from somebody's grandmother in Indianapolis when most of our security in foreign countries is outsourced to local authorities. How about relocating some of our domestic manpower overseas to help prevent a bombing or shoot-down?

In a time of considerable economic and geopolitical uncertainty, it stands to reason that the challenges faced by America's civil aviation system are not atop the list of national priorities. We also realize that a president alone cannot enact reforms; change requires cooperation, compromise and a great deal of patience. Nonetheless, in a world as connected as ours, where even the most distant continent is a nonstop flight away, a modern and efficient air transport system is vital to any nation's strength and prestige. Close to 2 million Americans travel by air each day, as do millions of pounds of freight and parcels. It is not a rhetorical stretch to submit that the nation's economy can only be as healthy as the air transport system that help keeps it running.

6. Embargo the embargo

Last but not least, lift the restrictions on travel to Cuba. This artifact of Cold War hostility has no place in 2008 America. Rescinding the embargo would be good for diplomacy, good for the economies of both countries and good for the airlines.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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