Seattle

Eno Transportation Weekly

Op-Ed: The U.S. Aviation Industry Needs a Makeover

Over the course of his presidential campaign and just as recently as last week, Donald Trump has lamented the poor state of the American aviation system. In a February 9 meeting with aviation executives, he focused his criticisms on futile modernization efforts made by the government stating specifically that “when it’s completed, it’s not going to be a good system”. He has also gone on record criticizing several airports, calling them “third-world.” He’s not alone: Vice President Joe Biden leveled the same concern about New York’s LaGuardia airport back in 2014.

While their assessments may be a bit apocryphal, they are right to draw attention to our nation’s aviation sector. It is desperately in need of a makeover.

The aviation industry plays a critical role in the American economy. It transports 900 million passengers every year and is responsible for $1.5 trillion in total economic activity, nearly 12 million jobs and represents 5.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2012. Moreover, the industry’s $83 billion trade surplus is the largest trade surplus of any manufacturing industry in 2015.

Tying this all together is a complex infrastructure network of airports and air traffic control operated by, among many others, millions of highly skilled pilots, mechanics and other technicians, and air traffic controllers. The tremendous collaborative effort of industry and government over the decades, has translated into the safest airspace in the world.

But while the U.S. had long been considered the gold standard in aviation technology and safety, the nation has begun to lose its edge and is falling behind its peers while the rest of the world surpasses it in innovation. There are several problems:

For one, the ability of U.S. airports to accommodate future passenger growth might be in jeopardy. Airport congestion will require systematic intervention to allow demand not to outpace capacity. The economic costs of congestion and delays are in the billions of dollars per year. Today, the busiest 30 airports in the U.S. handle 72 percent of passengers, and while many are prepared to handle more traffic today, some face capacity constraints and should be expanded as soon as possible. Air traffic control on the other hand is a relic from the post World War II years, and while the federal government has been trying to modernize it since the 1980s, progress is slow and erratic. Only an entity outside the direct control of government (as well as congressional appropriators) will have the necessary independence to implement needed modern technologies at the pace needed to meet demand.

The aviation workforce is another growing problem for the industry and the U.S. economy. The dearth of pilots, air traffic controllers and maintenance technicians, which is being exacerbated by a coming wave of retirements in an aging workforce, is a looming concern. Attracting large numbers of potential employees to the aviation industry has been challenging. Pilots, for example, face low starting wages for a profession that demands extensive and high-priced initial training. For air traffic controllers, issues with inadequate skills training and recruitment processes seem to contribute to shortages. In the case of maintenance workers, deeper issues such as the loss of feeder vocation and technical training programs have reduced the pool of candidates for these positions.

With the increasing connectivity of our aviation systems, cybersecurity has become a newly elevated risk and is among the most pressing issues affecting aviation. Concerns have also been raised about potential access points – from air traffic control equipment to aircrafts – for hackers and terrorists that were previously unavailable. Unmanned vehicles, or drones, are another technological innovation that has created a whole new range of concerns, from safety (collision with manned aircraft), to security (potential use for nefarious activities) to privacy (for drones equipped with cameras).

The problems facing the aviation industry are complex and widespread. Although some could see some immediate actions, others will take time and patience in order to avoid legislation that fails to account for any unintended consequences. However, the United States’ aviation industry has a stellar track record for safety and innovation. Addressing these problems and concerns will be a challenge, but one that Washington should embrace fully.