April 30, 2018

Now that the ATC system privatization debate seems to be over, NBAA President and CEO Bolen said the aviation community needs to work on modernizing the system by implementing the remaining components of the NextGen air traffic management system.

Bolen made that statement during an April 26 luncheon panel discussion that also included representatives from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, JetBlue Airways and the FAA. The event was sponsored by The Wings Club and held at the Yale Club in New York City.

“We now have an opportunity to discuss what the future of aviation should look like,” said Bolen. “How do we make sure the U.S. continues to have the largest, safest, most efficient and most diverse ATC system – not just today, but well into the future?

“What got lost in the ATC system privatization debate was that what we really need is modernization,” explained Bolen. “The U.S. ATC system is envy of the world. It moves more airplanes on a per-runway and per-airport basis than any other country. But as good as we are today, that’s not good enough for tomorrow.”

New technologies, such as the emergence of electric aircraft, will spur continued traffic growth, he said. “We need the infrastructure to accommodate that growth.”

The NextGen technologies that have been rolled out to date have increased situational awareness and traffic throughput, while reducing aviation’s environmental footprint. But NextGen is not a panacea for all of the ATC system’s challenges, especially in the congested Northeast, suggested Bolen.

“We don’t have enough ground infrastructure in the New York area,” said Bolen. “In some cases, we are going to need to pour concrete” to create new runways and airports. The ATC system also faces personnel challenges, such as retaining air traffic controllers, especially in regions with a high cost of living like New York.

Asked if FAA funding instability has hampered ATC system modernization, Bolen argued that FAA funding over the past 20 years has been relatively stable. “Part of our challenge is taking revenues and making sure they are utilized in a focused way to improve the system.”

Asked if competition among aviation groups has slowed modernization, Bolen said that the fate of general aviation is “inextricably linked” to other aviation sectors. “So, how do we take a diverse group of aviation interests and move forward?”

Bolen said the answer, in part, is the NextGen Advisory Council, of which NBAA is a member. That diverse industry group helps articulate aviation’s infrastructure needs to the FAA.

“We want the system to be better for everybody,” said Bolen. “We need a system that provides ATC system access to rural communities, as well as to big cities such as Chicago. Our role should be to expand the pie instead of fighting over our piece of a smaller pie.”