There is no doubt that Congress has been working overtime and have rightfully focused on saving the U.S. economy from a dire fate (as forecasted by financial experts smarter than yours truly.) The initial numbers are mind boggling starting with the $700 billion budget for the credit crisis. But when it came time to doing something to improve an antiquated air traffic control system for the nation, Congress recently voted to do nothing.
There is no shortage of controversial subjects concerning the airline industry , and the air traffic control system, under the aegis of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), usually claims the foremost position for heated discussions. Safety and efficiency in the skies are at stake.
During peak air travel times in the United States, there are about 5,000 airplanes in the sky every hour and approximately 50,000 aircraft operating each day. It is the task of the air traffic control system to keep these aircraft safe.
The labor union representing the nation’s 14,800 controllers is in heated debate with the FAA over safe staffing levels. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, NATCA, contends that there is a shortage of experienced air traffic controllers resulting in a “staffing emergency” that is jeopardizing safety in the nation’s airspace.
Patrick Forrey, president of the NATCA, said in an interview with CNN, "The whole system is going to hell in a handbag, and it doesn't seem that anybody cares. These people [controllers] are being overworked ... and people are going to make mistakes," he said. "The time is ripe for a very serious catastrophic event on one of these runways."
In August a computer glitch in the air traffic control system resulted in a disastrous series of delays effecting 60,000 passengers. There are just two computer systems controlling the thousands of daily flights across the U.S. and we saw that week what happens when just one of those systems crashes.
The FAA has been pushing for a long-term modernization that would include replacing the current method of tracking planes, which uses World War II-era radar technology, by switching to a satellite-guided system that equips planes with GPS. "This is one of the largest project management challenges the U.S. government has had since we put somebody on the moon," Hank Krakowski, chief operations officer for the U.S. air traffic system, told the Associated Press. He called the August glitch "the poster child" for the FAA's modernization proposals.
So when these same issues were once again presented to Congress, what did they do? They went for the status quo. It seems that Congress can not act unless faced with a disaster.
Tripso.com reports this week that “despite nearly a decade-old battle about improving the ATC system, Congress has once again decided to do nothing. They just passed a continuation of last year’s funding, the FAA Extension Act of 2008. It will run through March 31, 2009. This is just one more in a series of extensions to fund the FAA operations implemented since September 2007.
“This means more of the same — more congestion in the New York airspace, more operations using decade’s-old systems, more deterioration of the ATC infrastructure, more late flights, more computer glitches, more legacy airline control of airports, more expenses when Congress finally acts and eventually higher airfares.”