Despite what the song says, this is seldom the most wonderful time of the year for air travelers. More than 25.3 million people are expected to fly, which is a 3-percent increase over last year.
Think about it. Almost the equivalent of the population of Texas will board a flight sometime over the next few weeks and expect to arrive safely and on time. Many will travel through Miami.
Travelers rarely think about what goes on behind the scenes to make all of those flights happen. That’s because they don’t have to. Air traffic controllers are behind the scenes and hard at work, managing countless flights and weather patterns to keep operations as seamless as possible. The men and women who serve as air traffic controllers do yeoman’s work to keep the skies safe. But the increasing demands of longer shifts and fewer replacements can take a toll.
The Federal Aviation Administration has missed its hiring goals for the past five years, and it is expected that more than 3,000 air controllers will retire in the coming couple of years. The fact that the FAA maintains one of the best safety ratings in the world is attributable, in part, to the dedication of air traffic controllers and agency officials who are committed to doing the job right.
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The traffic at the Miami International Airport requires 91 certified air traffic controllers, but it has just 58; the situation at the regional control center, which oversees airspace between Orlando and Puerto Rico, is almost as bad, filling just 205 of the required 267 slots. Staffing shortages and longer shifts directly contribute to fatigue, which is dangerous. Add outdated equipment to the equation, and the situation is soon untenable.
There is a more modern, efficient way to handle air traffic control that will benefit travelers and system employees alike. The FAA should be singularly focused on safety while partnering with a nonprofit operator with an independent board comprising representatives for travelers, carriers, unions, general aviation and government officials.
As it stands, the FAA is currently in charge of overseeing itself — an awkward model at best, a dangerous one at worst — and the agency must split its focus between air traffic control and the safety aspects of civil aviation.
Looking around the world, the London airspace is one of the busiest and most complex air spaces. Transatlantic flights from Europe must contend with the local air traffic from international hubs. Air traffic control is handled by the National Air Traffic Service, a public-private partnership in which the government owns a 49-percent stake in the company.
The NATS model managed 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers at 14 different airports last year. Those are astounding numbers but the most impressive of all is that flight delays caused by NATS were just 5.5 seconds last year.
Reforming any government entity is a Herculean task, made all the more challenging by partisan gridlock and the endless bickering between the Congress and the White House. Reforming the FAA to bring about a 21st-century approach to our skies has been one of the casualties. An independent nonprofit organization funded by user fees based on operating costs and exclusively used to improve the air traffic control system would ensure that employees critical to air safety are not subject to capricious federal budget disputes.
The fact that our nation’s air traffic controllers are still using World War II-era technology is absurd. Transforming air traffic control will provide a sharper focus on safety for employees and travelers while ensuring the system can accommodate the inevitable increase in air travel in the years to come.
David Grizzle is a former chief operations officer for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Leonard Pitts Jr. and Carl Hiaasen will return in January.