About a year ago, I traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to Detroit, Michigan, for a business trip. To the average passenger, the flight passed uneventfully. However, I am a retired NASA executive and techie, a pilot, and an aeronautical technology entrepreneur, so I took note as I always do of the flight’s path, because it says a lot about how woefully inefficient and outdated our flight system is. Like all flights, this one had a pre-flight plan with a pre-approved route. That route went through southern West Virginia and over central Ohio, covering 473 nautical miles—a route that the plane roughly followed, ultimately covering 489 nautical miles.
Here’s the problem: A Richmond-to-Detroit flight should actually cover fewer than 400 miles. Flying over north-central West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio, the route should be just 396 nautical miles—23 percent shorter. That one flight I took mirrors many others, and it reveals the dismal story of our inefficient and outdated airspace management system.
Because the system is designed to be managed by humans, one aircraft at a time, and because it relies mostly on ground-based navigation infrastructure and party-line communications between pilots and controllers, none of whom have a complete picture of the total situation, flying is rife with waste. It is time to expand and accelerate needed changes in the way we fly. Fortunately, the technologies we need are largely becoming available. But we are hobbled by a lack of national vision and leadership to implement them. Far from just making travel times shorter, which is no small feat, wholesale aviation reform also has consequences for economic opportunity.
At the center of this discussion is what experts call our National Airspace System (NAS). For simplicity, think of the NAS as made up of four components: 1) the airports; 2) the communications, navigation, surveillance, and information systems; 3) the sky’s invisible airways and jet routes, along with the rules that govern them; and 4) the humans, such as air traffic controllers and airport managers, who make the system run. The problem is that our NAS is badly outdated and in drastic need of modernization. Not all flights are as severely inefficient as the Richmond-to-Detroit route I flew, but in general, route inefficiencies average about 10 percent. Further compounding these inefficiencies is that aircraft in the NAS often do not fly at the most fuel-efficient altitudes and speeds. If aircraft were not confined to the human-controller-friendly but wasteful architecture of routes, altitudes, and procedures left over from the last century and were instead guided by new satellite-based, Internet-enabled, more autonomous technologies, we could have a more efficient way to fly, along with more airspace capacity.
What is the cost of our airspace system’s inefficiencies? In 2014, air travelers spent nearly seven billion passenger-hours flying in the United States. Assuming a range between $40 and $50 per hour (based on recent U.S. Transportation Research Board studies of how to valuate individuals’ travel time), the value of the time passengers spend flying is roughly about $300 billion. This means that if we saved 5 to 10 percent of passengers’ time through more efficient airspace operations, the improvement in terms of passengers’ value of time (or lost productivity) would be between $15 billion and $30 billion.
But there’s more. A 10 percent loss in productivity through wasted passenger-hours is about 680 million labor hours. At about 2,000 hours per year per worker, this loss equates to about 340,000 full-time jobs per year, or about three industries the size of Microsoft. This lost opportunity cost alone should be sufficient motivation to drive a national vision and support for policies for the future of aviation.
How do we get the modern NAS that we need? As it happens, Congress has long been aware of the problem and even endeavored to do something about it. In 2003, it enacted the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) legislation, which sought to transform the NAS into a twenty-first-century system capable of safely supporting the growth of flying of all kinds (beyond just airlines) while advancing predictability, reliability, and efficiency. Important strides to upgrade our NAS have been made under NextGen. The initiative helped power the rapid deployment of new airspace surveillance technologies, systemwide information sharing among all users, and advanced software for reducing delays.
Unfortunately, so much more needs to be done. In recent decades, the airspace management systems advanced by NASA and implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have matured—ossified, some might argue—around human-centered operations. We have dumbed down the design of our airspace (routings and procedures for pilots and controllers to follow) to make it a system that humans are able to manage. While drivers have long since dumped their paper maps in favor of satellite navigation (GPS), we are still flying along eight-mile-wide corridors (jet routes and lower-altitude “victor” airways) between the ground stations, with five miles of spacing between aircraft. The Czech Republic and Hungary, for example, have canned the old airway routes in favor of advanced satellite navigation routings without airways directly between origins and destinations. We are in a holding pattern while others are soaring ahead of us.
Looking back at my flight from Richmond to Detroit provides a prime example of the costs of our outdated system. The route I flew had nothing to do with giving wide berth to other current traffic; it had everything to do with making the airspace easy for humans to manage. These conservative practices cause wasted flying time and costs. What makes this state of affairs hard to accept is that most modern airplanes possess the technical capacity to safely operate at peak or near-peak efficiency with less space between them—it’s just that our NAS won’t let them.
Moreover, while NextGen has driven a variety of technological innovations, not many of our airports have access to the new technologies. The original NextGen vision of a transformed and ubiquitous airspace management system for all of our airspace has been pared down to support improvements at a handful of airports and the routes between them. The major effort by the FAA and other supporting agencies has focused on a relatively small number of the busiest airports—about 35—leaving the rest of our airports, numbering more than 5,000 for public use, stuck in the twentieth century.
What to do? We want—we need—a twenty-first-century airspace system, driven by a policy that empowers our government’s research and regulatory agencies. With a new NAS, the United States can realize untapped economic and societal benefits. Without a new NAS, we are stuck in the wrong corridor, watching the rest of the world fly by.