Insider Series: How Can ATC Keep Up With Increasing Traffic Levels?
TPG Contributor “Vic Vector” is an air traffic controller at a major ATC facility in the United States. In this installment of our “Insider Series,” he discusses the future of the national airspace system and how ATC is preparing to handle the forecasted increase in traffic volume.
In its most recent annual report on the state of the airline industry, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that the demand for air travel will double during the next 20 years. This comes only one year after the FAA issued a prediction that the most common metric for measuring air travel volume — Revenue Passenger Miles (RPM) — will increase 76% by the year 2034.
Aviation is a historically cyclical industry. After a downturn in the 1970s, traffic levels soared in the 1980s and 90s, only to recede again following 9/11 — and now we're poised at the start of another upswing. The steady and significant increase of air traffic during the next couple of decades seems inevitable, but what are air traffic controllers doing to prepare for it?
The most obvious and largest-reaching effort is the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (also called NextGen). Currently, the national airspace system relies on a network of outdated, ground-based navigation and radar-surveillance stations. NextGen aims to improve efficiency by transitioning to more modern satellite-based technology for these vital tasks, and at the same time boosting fuel savings for budget-conscious airlines and increasing the overall capacity of the airspace system. Planes will be able to fly more direct routes using GPS navigation and controllers will have access to more accurate position information, allowing them to safely fit more aircraft in their airspace.
One hallmark of the NextGen system that's already being rolled out at an airport near you is the Optimized Profile Descent (OPD). Historically, the transition from cruising altitude to landing has been akin to walking down a flight of stairs, with multiple level-offs along the way. With the OPD, instead of hard altitude restrictions that must be met by each aircraft, the FAA has constructed Performance Based Navigation (PBN) arrivals that allow an aircraft to descend at a range of altitudes. ATCs call this range of altitudes "windows," and they allow each aircraft to optimize their descent profile based on payload, wind and other environmental factors, with the goal of minimizing fuel burn.
Essentially, OPDs turn the aforementioned staircase into a ramp that allows each aircraft to descend at their own pace within prescribed windows. It's a win-win for both pilots and controllers, as instead of issuing multiple descent clearances for each aircraft, ATCs can now issue just one clearance to "descend via" the arrival. These arrivals are slowly being introduced at major US airports, and eventually these optimized profiles will be the norm for both arrivals and departures. In the meantime, though, the transition to NextGen has been fraught with issues.
NextGen is scheduled to be fully in place by 2025, but budgetary concerns at the FAA have so far resulted in inconsistent funding of various NextGen programs and numerous delays in NextGen implementation. Paul Rinaldi, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (our labor union), has gone on record saying that while they're staunchly opposed to privatization, something needs to change. “The status quo of unstable, unpredictable funding for the National Airspace System has led to serious problems at the FAA,” said Rinaldi. “It cannot finance long-term projects, develop the system for new users or modernize our country’s aging infrastructure. The FAA has also struggled to maintain proper resources and staff at our busiest air traffic control facilities.”
Air traffic controllers in the US face mandatory retirement at age 56, and currently one-third of our entire workforce is eligible to retire – there will be significant turnover in the next decade. ATC staffing levels are currently at the lowest they've been in years, and considering the time it takes to train and fully certify an air traffic controller, it's not an overstatement to say our industry is facing a legitimate crisis.
NextGen's additional layers of safety and functionality are an excellent step toward modernizing our antiquated air traffic control system, but without qualified controllers in towers and in front of radar scopes, its potential is all for naught.
The aviation industry is on the way up, no pun intended. As our traffic levels continue to increase in the coming years, we'll no doubt require a more modern infrastructure and a corps of well-trained personnel — either without the other is pointless. Unless we receive clear, long-term budgetary guidance, we'll continue to waste more money on false starts and shortsighted goals.
We've always correctly aimed to be an industry that puts safety above all else, but now we stand on a precipice where money has become almost as important. There are good controllers in facilities all over the country working to keep you safe on a daily basis, and we have the technology required to lead us into the future of air traffic — but now all we need is the money and leadership to do the same.