Momentum is building for air traffic control (ATC) reform. With health care reform prospects dashed for now, and tax reform facing a difficult path, ATC reform could be an area for legislative progress in coming months. The Trump administration and House leadership are on-board with an ATC privatization plan passed through the lower chamber’s transportation committee. And while the Senate is always a hurdle for fiscally conservative reforms, privatization supporters have leverage because current funding for the ATC system runs out at the end of September.
Why do we need major ATC reform? This is a high-tech industry that is rapidly evolving, yet our system is trapped inside of the hopelessly sluggish Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In other countries, independent ATC systems are moving ahead with an array of innovations. We are falling behind in a very real way, which has important ramifications for airport congestion, flight delays, and aviation safety.
Consider one cool new ATC technology: “remote” or “virtual” control towers. The iconic airport towers that have the big windows for controllers to see runways are likely on the way out. They will be replaced by visual and infrared cameras on runways able to pan and zoom, with the electronic feed going to control centers either nearby or hundreds of miles away. The feed will be displayed on wall-sized high-definition monitors that will be overlaid with electronic flight and sensor information.
The United States is behind on remote towers, as we are on many ATC technologies. The first remote tower was built by Saab and put in operation in Sweden in 2015, as shown in the photo. The company describes some of the advantages of remote towers here, including superior performance at nighttime and during bad weather.