Airline flight delays are at the top of the list for traveler complaints during holidays and the busy summer travel season.

A bipartisan group of political operatives in Washington claims the problem is largely the result of antiquated technology being used to operate the country’s air traffic control system.

They say half of all flight delays are the result of air traffic control (ATC) inefficiencies.  Radar technology dating back to the 1940’s is still being used instead of Satellite and GPS technology.  In addition, the number of fully-certified air traffic controllers is at a 28-year low, while a-third of them are currently eligible for retirement.

The bipartisan group contends political wrangling between Republicans and Democrats has crippled the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ability to modernize air traffic operations.

Former North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan – photo courtesy of Byron Dorgan

Former North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan is a member of the group, which supports legislation to move oversight of ATC away from the FAA, and  into the hands of an independent, non-profit organization.

“Some 60 other countries have already done what we should do” said Dorgan.  “And that is move to a government chartered non-profit organization that would be able to issue bonds and buy the equipment to move toward next generation capability.”

Among the other members of the bipartisan group are James Burnley, who served as Secretary of Transportation under Republican President Ronald Reagan, and Charlie Leocha, who is chairman of the non-profit Travelers United.

Dorgan notes controllers are guiding planes through the air by passing slips of paper to each other.

“That’s unbelievable in the year 2017.  They don’t do that in Canada and other countries.  But we still use slips of paper, and that describes the lack of current technology being used.  And it also describes why some passengers sit on airplanes on the tarmac waiting because of air traffic control delays.”

Missouri’s two largest metro areas have airports that are among the 40 busiest in the country for passenger boarding’s.

St. Louis Lambert International ranks 32nd with around 6.3 million boarding’s per year.  It currently handles 270 daily flights, with Southwest accounting for 54% of the traffic.  Kansas City International is the country’s 38th busiest airport with more than 5.1 million passenger boarding’s.  Its two biggest carriers are Southwest and Delta.  Neither airline is plagued by an inordinately high number of flight delays.

Dorgan chaired an aviation subcommittee in the Senate.  He later headed a group at the non-profit transportation focused Eno Foundation, where he says progress was made to find a path toward modernizing the air traffic control system.

“We worked for two years trying to evaluate ‘How could we make better progress to move from World War II radar to satellite guidance called next generation guidance.  At the end of two years we put out a report, and that’s the basis on which there’s now legislation that’s being discussed.”

The bill in the U.S. House recently passed a committee and could see a vote on the chamber’s floor this month.  Dorgan notes the FAA’s sluggish process in modernizing the air traffic control system is well documented.

“The inspector general that looks at what the FAA is doing continually, over every six months to a year, sends out another report saying ‘We’re just not making the kind of progress we should make.”

If the legislation were to become law, the FAA would continue to have safety oversight.  The bill’s supporters, including Dorgan, say splitting operations from oversight has long been advocated for by Democrats and Republicans going back to the Clinton Administration.   They claim controllers, pilots, the military and bi-partisan former FAA officials are behind the model for transferring oversight.

Dorgan says the FAA’s progress has been far too slow.  “The FAA under the current circumstance believes they can eliminate the use of these paper strips that are passed from controller to controller by the year 2028.  Can you imagine that?  11 years from now.  Makes no sense to me.”

Dorgan disclosed in an interview with Missoiurinet that he’s been engaged by American Airlines to represent the company’s interests in the issue.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta issued a statement to Missourinet on the overall discussion.  “While the FAA has made progress to upgrade our nation’s air traffic control system despite certain constraints, I support looking at new ways to help us provide stable and sufficient funding to more rapidly modernize our system while maintaining the highest level of safety” said Huerta.  “The proposal to create a separate, non-government air traffic control service provider is a step in a process that needs to involve all users of the airspace system and deliver benefits to the system as a whole.”