National Politics

Could be time to overhaul air safety system that depends on a strip of paper

The nation’s airports will keep get busier and the system that keeps air travel safe will keep getting slower without privatization, say backers of a bill that would set that in motion.
The nation’s airports will keep get busier and the system that keeps air travel safe will keep getting slower without privatization, say backers of a bill that would set that in motion. AP File

If you’ve ever sat in a plane on a runway wondering why it isn’t flying, an 8-inch by 1-inch strip of paper could be partly to blame.

The flight progress strip, which is handed from one controller to another to transfer responsibility for a flight, is just one example of outdated technology being used in the nation’s air traffic control system, say the people who are trying to privatize that system. They say outdated technology is hindering progress at airports such as Gulfport-Biloxi International because it is causing a shortage of pilots at smaller airports.

“Regional airlines are getting squeezed two ways, right now, and the squeeze is growing,” said James H. Burnley IV, Transportation Secretary in the Reagan administration. “They’re getting squeezed because the majors need more pilots just to fly the same number of flights, never mind growth, and the pipeline that supplies pilots is drying up because the training requirements are so great. So Gulfport, over time, what that means is you’re likely to have fewer (smaller regional aircraft) coming in, not because the demand is not there but because the number of pilots is so restricted for the regional airline.”

The reason the big airlines need more pilots circles back to that narrow slip of paper and the outdated technology it represents, Burnley said. And that technology is slowing air traffic down.

“We’ve got an incredibly safe air traffic control system but it is antiquated,” he said. “The way we keep it incredibly safe is our system is slowing down.

“If you look at the block times, the scheduled times by the airlines between any two cities of any consequence in this country, what you’ll find is over the last 20 years, they have had to add 15 to 20 percent more time.”

An MIT study, he said, estimated that extra time added up to 33 million minutes over the last 10 years. And, because of limits on the amount of time each pilot can fly each month, that required big airlines to have 1,000 more pilots just to fly the same number of routes.

“So where do the major airlines get those pilots?” he asked. From the regional airlines, who then struggle to replace them under the stricter training requirements passed three or four years ago.

And how would privatization help? He said it would free air traffic control from procurement and personnel red tape, get it out of “the annual budget frolics” and allow it to go straight to the bond market and do long-range capital planning for projects such as the technology upgrade.

Now, Burnley said, the plan to eliminate the paper strips would take 10 years. He thinks a nonprofit corporation running air traffic control would be more nimble.

Canada adopted a similar system in 1997. It uses GPS and other state-of-the-art technology, not World War II era radar and paper strips. And it has reduced charges to airlines.

There is a bill in Congress that would add the U.S. to a growing list of countries that have privatized air traffic control. Sounds like a dream Republican plan: Flipping a government agency to the private sector and freeing it into the wilds of the free market.


Even though it has President Donald Trump behind it, none of Mississippi’s three Republican representatives has committed to voting for the bill next week. So, Burnley and GOP operative/lobbyist Austin Barbour made a whirlwind tour of Mississippi media Friday to try to exert some pressure.

They haven’t been able to meet 4th Congressional District Rep. Steven Palazzo in person and his staff told them he’s still studying the proposal. He hasn’t responded to an email from the Sun Herald either.

They don’t have commitments from Gregg Harper, R-3, and Trent Kelly, R-1. They haven’t even tried Democrat Bennie Thompson of the 2nd District.

There has been opposition all along. The Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Thad Cochran, R-Miss., rejected the proposal earlier this year. That could be overcome when the House and Senate hammer out differences in spending bills.

Then there is Hurricane Irma, which could shake up the House calendar and delay the vote anyway.

“I hope your Congressman Palazzo will look at the facts and what the status quo will mean over time,” Burnley said. “The air traffic controllers union supports it, the biggest pilots and flight attendants unions support it because they know what’s at stake.”

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton