There is nothing more important to airlines than meeting the highest standards of safety, on the ground and in the air. Despite today’s challenging business climate, the airlines are delivering the best safety record in history. But new challenges lie ahead. The harsh reality is that, unless we take action to significantly overhaul our current air traffic management system, not only could customer needs and expectations for efficient air transportation service be in peril, but so could our stellar safety record.
2006 and 2007 will prove to be pivotal years for aviation in the United States. They present an opportunity to make great improvements on the ramp, where our employees work, as well as here in Washington, D.C., where ATA works for advancement of industry goals.
While the system to control our planes is currently safe, it is straining to accommodate even today’s volumes. That system was built on a foundation of 1940s and 1950s technology and procedures that no longer have a place in today’s digital, information-centric, satellite-enabled world. Instead of a seamless integration of technology and procedures that would allow aircraft to “self-separate” and safely fly the most direct routes, aviation is hamstrung by the outdated paradigm of controller voice communication, limited radar and the vectoring of aircraft “single-file” over fixed points on the ground.
Without important technological change, today’s air traffic management system will not be able to accommodate the unprecedented levels of growth expected in the next five to 10 years, as a new type of airplane, the Very Light Jet (VLJ), begins commercial air-taxi service. These high-flying, but slow-moving jets will utilize the same airspace as the largest commercial carriers and we should all be concerned that they, along with the ever-growing business aviation fleet, will push our ATC system to gridlock.
Roughly every 10 years, a critically important debate takes place here in the nation’s capital to determine how to appropriately fund the aviation system. As industry insiders, you are probably aware that the tax structure, which funds the nation’s air traffic management system, is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2007.
When the current funding system was designed in the 1970s, airlines were economically regulated by government and were far and away the dominant users of the nation’s aviation system. At the time, it made sense that they would be looked to for funding of major capital needs while Congress provided other funding for system operations and safety. Fast forward to 2006: The airline industry has been economically deregulated and is subject to all of the economic forces that implies; at the same time, the airlines are sharing the system they pay for with an increasing array of other users who view it as their entitlement to receive these government services at no or an extremely discounted cost; the government has continued to step away from its commitment to pay for system operations; and now we face the prospect of making very substantial new system investments.
So why do I see this as an opportunity?
2006/2007 is the first reauthorization cycle for us to begin affecting the necessary changes needed to fund the Next Generation Air Traffic System (NGATS). You will be reading more about this extremely important issue in the coming months, as we continue educating Congress and the flying and shipping public about the immediate need for change.
In addition to ATA’s work with Congress on these endeavors, we cannot take our eye off the ball and lose sight of the importance of ramp safety. For years, ATA has been engaged in this important aspect of aviation, and this year is no exception. We enter 2006 with an ambitious and well thought-out plan to help airlines cut maintenance and ramp accidents throughout their operations. The ATA Safety Council and Engineering, Maintenance and Material Council have co-chartered a Maintenance and Ramp Human Factors Task Force. We expect to have participation from members of at least six major airlines, ground-service vendors, manufacturers, airport management and the FAA. Additionally, the ATA Ground Safety Committee has created several safety guidelines that highlight the experience and best practices of the industry at large, which are available on the “Publications” section of our Web site (www.airlines.org/publications).