In today’s Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney reports on the superior air traffic control (ATC) system north of the border. American aviation is suffering from a bureaucratic government-run ATC, while Canada’s privatized system is moving ahead with new technologies that reduce delays and congestion.
Showing leadership and boldness, House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster managed to get reforms along Canadian lines passed out of his committee. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have thus far been too timid to move ahead with restructuring. The flying public may have to wait until a reform-minded president can push an overhaul through Congress.
Here’s some of McCartney’s reporting:
Flying over the U.S.-Canadian border is like time travel for pilots. Going north to south, you leave a modern air-traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up.
The model is Nav Canada, the world’s second-largest air-traffic control agency, after the U.S. Canada handles a huge volume of traffic between the U.S. and both Asia and Europe. Airlines praise its advanced technology that results in shorter and smoother flights with less fuel burn.
In Canada, pilots and controllers send text messages back and forth, reducing errors from misunderstood radio transmissions. Requests for altitude changes are automatically checked for conflicts before they even pop up on controllers’ screens. Computers look 20 minutes ahead for any planes potentially getting too close to each other. Flights are monitored by a system more accurate than radar, allowing them to be safely spaced closer together to add capacity and reduce delays.
And when flights enter U.S. airspace, pilots switch back to the old way of doing things.
The key, Nav Canada says, is its nongovernmental structure. Technology, critical to efficient airspace use these days, gets developed faster than if a government agency were trying to do it, officials say. Critics say slow technology development has been the FAA’s Achilles’ heel.
… Another innovation adopted around the world is electronic flight strips—critical information about each flight that gets changed on touch screens and passed from one controller to another electronically. Nav Canada has used them for more than 13 years. Many U.S. air controllers still use paper printouts placed in plastic carriers about the size of a 6-inch ruler that controllers scribble on.
For more on ATC, see here.