Aging infrastructure, old computers, lack of pilots and air traffic controllers are just but a few of the challenges faced by the US aviation system.
1. Concerning aviation system
With the volume of passenger expected to pick up higher than pre-pandemic levels — a fact already registered by the Transportation Security Administration during the Memorial Day weekend — experts are concerned about the safety and efficiency of the country’s aviation system during the summer period.
“We expect the summer travel season to be off the charts when it comes to demand,” Geoff Freeman, President of the US Travel Association told CNN.
That’s great for the travel industry, but there’s no doubt that – as a country – we have underinvested in the aviation system for far too long. This type of demand will be an incredible stress test for it.Geoff Freeman, President of the US Travel Association for CNN
2. Staff shortage
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the most pressing issue is a shortage of air traffic controllers, critical to guide planes during take-off and landing. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked airlines to reduce summer flights in the New York metropolitan area, where only 54% of the radar is staffed.
“The FAA has acknowledged that it can’t handle this level of demand — that’s why they’ve asked the airlines to reduce capacity in some areas,” said Freeman. “They know that the investment in air traffic control, technology and individuals has been below the level it needs to be – and now we’re paying the price for that.”
FAA is planning to hire 1,500 new air traffic controllers by the end of the year, yet the process is lengthy as it requires months of training and then up to three years of on-the-job experience before certification.
“Chronically low staffing has been a problem for a while,” Paul Rinaldi, a former air traffic controller and vice president of the Global Air Traffic Controller Alliance told CNN. “We stopped training during Covid-19, and a lot of people retired. This does have a negative impact on the volume of traffic.”
Pilots’ shortage is also concerning for the sector in the US. According to a report by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, there is a shortfall of around 17,000 pilots in North America, which will widen to 24,000 by 2026.
3. Ancient computers
The FAA’s problems go beyond air traffic control and pilot shortages, though. In January, a system outage brought domestic aviation to a standstill, causing thousands of cancellations and delays. The affected system — Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) — was set up in 1993, called and it’s used by pilots to become aware of issues that can affect the safety of a flight. A damaged file prevented it from working and there was no available backup.
The FAA deserves to have more robust, more contemporary technology infrastructure.Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst at Atmosphere Research
“Many systems date back several decades — not many of us have a 40-year-old computer at home right now, and it’s frightening that some of the technology systems that the FAA may be relying on potentially goes back that much.”
The FAA is reportedly working on a multibillion-dollar program to overhaul its entire technology, called NextGen, which is expected to be fully deployed by 2030.