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May: U.S. Air Traffic Control System Needs Update

As work continues to re-establish our vibrant national economy, attention continues to focus on federal programs that can effectively jump-start the process. The question: Where can prudent federal spending now produce both good quality, near-term jobs and provide the maximum return on those investments as the economy again begins to pick up steam?

[IMGCAP(1)]One obvious candidate is an accelerated program to rapidly modernize our nation’s air-traffic management system. Air transportation, after all, powers the U.S. economy while driving economic and social development. As any governor or mayor will tell you, air transportation and the connectivity it provides are critical to job creation. The airlines are the vital link between small communities, our larger cities and the entire world beyond our borders.

When those linkages are strong, prosperity follows. When they are weakened, as they have been recently by the unprecedented financial and economic crisis, recovery becomes more difficult. But out of crisis on occasion comes opportunity, and what we have before us, in these difficult days, is a real opportunity for leadership and change.

Spending prudently for a modernized air-traffic management system offers a “grand slam— in return — more than 100,000 high-quality near-term jobs (using the government’s conservative projections); greater government efficiency in providing still safer air-traffic management services; tremendous expansion of economic and employment opportunities across the broader economy as airlines (which drive more than 5 percent of the gross domestic product and directly or indirectly support more than 10 million jobs) kick back into high gear; and finally, by effectively addressing growing environmental concerns as air-traffic management modernization enables reduced fuel burn and associated emissions by up to 12 percent. Simply put, an accelerated air-traffic management program lines up perfectly with all of our key national priorities.

The case for air-traffic management modernization, generally termed NextGen, is quite literally inescapable. Hardly a day goes by without some mention in major news accounts of the unacceptable level of aviation system delays and all of the associated customer frustrations and business complaints. It does not have to be that way. Reduced delays are just a few technological and procedural steps away and, with that, a significant reduction in the $41 billion burden that delays impose today, as well as a major reduction in the environmental concerns engendered by unnecessary jet fuel burn.

Like too many things in Washington, D.C., however, the debate over NextGen has dragged on for years — and the current plan for deployment extends out over 15 to 20 years. Obviously, that scenario must change.

What to do? The Air Transport Association airlines have been direct and specific in their call for action on what is known in the industry as NowGen: a concrete plan to fund and accelerate the deployment of the five key technologies and procedures at the core of NextGen, but to do so right now. The plan, with broad and deep industry support, could be completed in just three to four years. Relying again on conservative government estimates, the added expense would be paid back more than twice within just the first few years. NowGen presents a unique opportunity to show how government and industry can really drive a robust and growing economy.

An additional investment of about $6 billion in our aviation system between now and 2013 can deliver NowGen. This investment would provide the necessary ground infrastructure, aircraft equipage and procedures to allow a satellite-based, GPS-oriented, digital-communications enabled “smart— air-traffic management system to take full advantage for the first time of our almost limitless airspace. For more information on the details and the technology, please visit

What we are seeking, and what we believe the country really needs, is the core infrastructure that will permit a healthy commercial aviation sector and, with that, assure that we have the tools we all need to enable a thriving economy. With the prudent spending we are suggesting, an eye toward helping to establish stable and sustainable businesses and the avoidance of ruinous additional taxes that reverse the positive “multiplier effect— airlines have on job creation, we can get the job done.

NowGen is “shovel ready— and can truly become a functioning program almost immediately upon a decision being made to advance the effort. Better yet, it can produce dramatic system performance improvements within just the next few years. The ATA airlines are fully committed to this unprecedented leadership opportunity for the Obama administration and Congress to come together to show the way.

James May is president and CEO of the Air Transport Association.