Fund the FAA Before Travel Challenges Get Even Worse

Fund the FAA Before Travel Challenges Get Even Worse
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Fund the FAA Before Travel Challenges Get Even Worse
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Long lines. Overcrowded flights. Delays. Inefficient security. These are just a few of the inevitable realities that traveling Americans constantly face in airports across the country. With unwise budget cuts, poorly arranged priorities, and disinterested policymakers, the government is shirking its responsibilities to commercial air travelers.

Once a shining example of this nation’s global lead in innovation, commercial air travel has fallen behind in technological advancement. It’s time we change this narrative and bring our country’s overstretched and antiquated airspace infrastructure into the 21st century.   

You may be asking yourself, Why now? We’ve been putting up with these inconveniences for years, so what’s making this a pressing issue? The short answer is that the game is changing, and stakes are becoming higher as new players enter the field. I’ll mention four crucial issues.

Let’s start with skies increasingly crowded with new technologies. Drone traffic, air taxis, and commercial space programs – to name a few – are entering the field and disrupting the nation’s airspace, and the Federal Aviation Administration does not have the necessary technology or funding to keep up.

Drones are entering the space at an unprecedented and rapid pace. Since 2016, the number of these remotely operated vehicles registered with the FAA has increased from 470,000 to 1.3 million. And they are not coming in quietly.

With numerous examples of these aircraft violating security and airspace protocols, it’s obvious that the FAA has a pressing need to regulate commercial and private drones.

Second, travel delays aren’t just an unwelcome hassle. They are a burdensome cost on Americans. Time is money, the old saying goes, and that’s certainly in evidence at our airports. In 2018 alone, travel delays cost an estimated $28 billion, which was directly paid by passengers, airlines and airports. It’s more than dollars and cents: Inefficient and outdated air traffic control systems are wasting hard-earned hours of people’s lives. I don’t know about you, but the number of hours I’ve spent sitting on a hot tarmac is higher than I’d like to count.

Third, American commercial air travel is no longer state of the art. The FAA has been experiencing funding roadblocks for years, hindering its ability to innovate. The funding bill approved by Congress in February 2019 cut the FAA’s budget by $549 million, and we’ve all seen the direct effects this lack of funding has on our country. One example is the 35-day government shutdown, which occurred from December 2018 to February 2019 and caused complete chaos in airports. Before the shutdown, staffing was an issue for the FAA, with the number of trained controllers at its lowest point in 30 years. Of course, the shutdown heightened the issue and spiked the number of delays across the country, causing an already vulnerable agency to take a substantial hit in productivity.

The issues we are facing do not stop with high costs and understandably disgruntled travelers. The lack of modernization is threatening our safety.

And the greatest threat to our safety is cyberattacks. In order to protect the airspace monitoring and control systems, we need more advanced and modernized systems in place. With the numbers of cyberattacks at an all time high and as terrorism moves into the cyber world, the need to protect passenger air travel from such attacks is more important than ever, and the FAA does not have the resources to build out this protection.

This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a situation in which we can all find some common ground. No matter who you are or where your political alliances lie, chances are you hate travel delays and inconveniences as much as the next person.

The challenges the FAA is facing are only going to grow as new technologies arise. If we continue to avoid upgrading these systems and allow the FAA to fall further behind, it will only lead to more travel delays, higher costs and a greater risk of cyberattack. Investments need to be made now, before we see the situation get even worse. 

Nick Rahall represented a West Virginia district in Congress from 1977-2015. He served as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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