Picture of Gerard Arpey
Let’s Fix ATC

Since July is one of the busiest travel months of the year, I thought I would devote this column to an issue that has an enormous and growing impact on the airlines’ ability to sustain the flow of people and products that drives our economy. The issue is our aviation infrastructure, and, in particular, the air-traffic control (ATC) system, which is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). U.S. airlines carry about 740 million passengers a year and are on a path to accommodate a billion passengers annually by 2015. The demands on our ATC system are enormous, and unfortunately, the system’s capabilities are not keeping up with those demands.

Today’s air-traffic controllers rely on outdated technologies that routinely bog down the system and compel airlines to fly inefficient, indirect routes. The results: more fuel burned, more emissions, and more of everybody’s time and money wasted. We need to fundamentally reform the way we move air traffic around the country because the existing system is approaching overload. The good news is that nearly every expert agrees on the steps that must be taken to address the issue. We need to shift from analog to digital technology and from a ground-based to a satellite-based system with a fully modernized air-traffic management system. The fact is, we’ve known for many years what changes need to be made, but very little has been done because of a dispute over how to pay for those changes.

The system by which ATC activities are funded is just as outdated as ATC’s technology. We support a common-sense approach that would allocate costs to all ATC system users in proportion to the services they consume. The money collected would be used to sustain and improve the ATC system for everyone. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, the business-aviation community — the companies and individuals operating private jets — are vigorously opposing this idea, because under the current system, they are getting a nearly free ride.

It’s important to understand that a small business jet carrying a few people poses the same challenge to ATC as the large aircraft you’re sitting in right now. To a beacon, a satellite, and a computer, a blip is a blip, and ATC’s costs are determined by the number of blips being managed. Under the current system, airlines and their customers use about two-thirds of the ATC system’s services, but pay (through taxes on tickets, fuel, and other things) 94 percent of the cost. What that means, as crazy as it sounds, is that airlines and our customers (that’s you!) are paying a subsidy — to the tune of $1.5 billion a year — to the companies and individuals who can afford their own aircraft.

In coming months, Congress will have an opportunity to address this inequity when it considers the reauthorization of legislation that funds the Federal Aviation Administration. If you agree that we need an ATC system capable of meeting the demands of our country and a funding system that does not force passengers to subsidize corporate aircraft, I hope you will let your elected representatives know.

In the meantime, thank you for flying with us today. Have a great flight.

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Gerard J. Arpey

Chairman & CEO
American Airlines