How to fix America's aviation system

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An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, January 11, 2023 (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, January 11, 2023 (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been almost 15 years since the last deadly plane crash on a U.S. airline. But near misses are on the rise, up 25% in the past decade.

That's a massive jump — caused by a sudden coalescing of several aviation issues that have lurked under the surface for years.

One, the FAA’s required ground radar and control systems are antiquated.

"They’re built on very old computers. Some are updated with floppy disks, and I kid you not," Paul Rinaldi, president emeritus of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says.

Two, air traffic controllers are aging out of the system and those still working are exhausted.

"Most of the controls are working 60-hour work weeks," Rinaldi adds.

Is it fixable?

Today, On Point: How to fix America's aviation system.


Paul Rinaldi, president emeritus of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. President of Rinaldi Consultants.

Dorothy Robyn, senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability. Served as aviation point person in the Clinton White House.

Also Featured

Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Paul Rinaldi is our guest today. He's a longtime air traffic controller. President emeritus of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and president of Rinaldi Consultants. And he joins us from Washington. Paul, welcome to On Point.

PAUL RINALDI: Hello, Meghna. How are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I'm doing well. How many years were you in the business as an active air traffic controller?

RINALDI: Just over 30, short of 31.

CHAKRABARTI: 31. So I'm speaking to a true veteran here.


CHAKRABARTI: We asked you on the show today, to help us decipher some of the communications between pilots and air traffic control on a particular day in Austin, Texas.

So we're about to hear bits of a recording from February 4th, just after 6:30 a.m. on a foggy morning in Austin. And the entire interaction is about four minutes long. We're going to hear significant sections of it, and here's how it starts.

FEDEX PILOT: Austin Tower, FedEx 1432 heavy passing 5.4 for the CAT III ILS 18L.

AUSTIN TOWER: FedEx 1432 heavy, Austin Tower, 18L. RVR: Touchdown 1400, midpoint 600, rollout 1800. 18L, clear to land.

CHAKRABARTI: So Paul, this sounds like information between a pilot and the tower about a plane approaching for a landing.

RINALDI: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. FedEx is telling the pilot, the tower, that they're going to do a CAT III approach, which is the most intense approach.

It's an instrument landing approach, an ILS approach that either has a very low decision height and decision height is when the pilot has to make a decision. If he sees the grounds, sees the runway or he goes around. So he's telling the tower that "We're on a cat three approach.

We're five miles out." And the tower is actually giving the information. RVR is Runway Visual Range. So the tower is telling the pilot exactly what the range is, visual range on the runway, and he gives the touchdown, the midpoint and the rollout.

CHAKRABARTI: And the 1,400, 600, what units are those?

RINALDI: In feet.

CHAKRABARTI: In feet. Okay.

RINALDI: 1,400 feet.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it. So we're going to have a very a complex landing requiring a lot of skill from the pilot.

RINALDI:  Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: We have affirmation from Austin Tower. One quick thing, just as an aside when FedEx identifies itself as FedEx 1432 heavy, the heavy indicates that it's like, what, a 737?

RINALDI: No, heavy. Yeah, I don't know the type of aircraft. It's probably, so heavy is the weight of the aircraft has a maximum, minimum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more. It's usually a wide body, is probably Boeing 767 Boeing 777. I'm pretty sure that's what FedEx uses for their wide bodies.

And the reason you say heavy is because it leaves a wake much like a big boat in the water leaves a very big wake when it's going fast. Through the sky, heavy aircraft will leave a big wake and you want to make sure, they use that so that there is a warning of anyone that's going to fly behind heavy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. One more thing about this first interaction. Austin Tower says 18L, one eight left. That's an important designation.

RINALDI: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: What is it?

RINALDI: That's the runway. Austin has parallel runways. one eight left, one eight right. So when he says, "You're clear to land runway 18L."

He's telling the pilot, "You're lined up for the right runway. This is the runway you're going to land on." That's why the approach is being done. So it's really, it's a confirmation back and forth between the pilot and the controller.

CHAKRABARTI: Which is standard practice to be sure everyone's --

RINALDI: Absolutely

CHAKRABARTI: Understood each other correctly. Got it.

RINALDI: Correct. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that's the setup for the approach that FedEx 1432 is going to take. And then in the recording of the interaction, we hear another voice coming in, and it's from a different pilot.

SOUTHWEST PILOT: Tower, Southwest 708, we’re short of 18L and we’re ready.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that's obviously a Southwest Airlines flight, 708.

RINALDI: Which is a Boeing 737, for sure.


RINALDI: Because that's all they fly.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it. So then we hear 18L again.

RINALDI: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: Meaning the same runway?

RINALDI: Yes. It's very common for controllers to use the same runway for arrivals and departures. And I don't know the exact situation in Austin, but maybe they only have RVR Runway Visual Range readings on 18L, and that would be one of the main reasons you would use this. Because obviously the fog is very thick, the ceiling is very low, so you want to be able to give the pilot the most information about the situation, and that's why you would use 

Runway 18L and give the RVR readings.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, yeah, so I'm glad that you specified that because, of course, to my untrained ear, I was wondering if that was the moment where something had already gone wrong. Because we have a flight scheduled for takeoff and one for landing using the same runway, but that's not where, that sounds like it's common,

RINALDI: Very common.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. So then after that, here is the reply that the Southwest flight gets from the tower.

AUSTIN TOWER: Southwest 708, Austin Tower. Runway 18L. RVR 1200, midpoint 600, rollout 1600. Fly heading 170. Runway 18L, cleared for takeoff. Traffic three-miles final is a heavy B767.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so here, based on what you said before, Paul, we have the Austin Tower giving sort of how much visual range that there is on runway 18L to the Southwest flight. Then at the end of that cut, the tower says, "Traffic three miles final is a heavy Boeing 747." So he's telling him that there's the FedEx flight out there?

RINALDI: Yep. That's common, right? You let them know. This is what I would call a squeeze play. We would run squeeze plays on a regular basis. We normally wouldn't do it in this weather. That's the first thing that pops up. There's, you're not sitting with 30 departures that time in the morning.

It's a judgment call, most controllers would sit and wait and make sure that FedEx would land safely, on the CAT III approach. There's also some requirements to keep the ILS critical area, the instrument landing system area, clear while they're doing such a precision approach as a CAT III approach.

Yeah, I think we could always Monday morning quarterback, but I'm sure that controller thinks if I could do it over again, I would probably just let Southwest wait until FedEx landed.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So then moving on in the recording. We're going to come back to that squeeze play in just a second, Paul, but here's how Southwest 708 replies.

SOUTHWEST: Okay. Fly heading 170 and cleared for takeoff 18L. Copy the traffic, Southwest 708.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, interesting, so the pilot, the Southwest pilot there is saying he copies the traffic, meaning he understood the message about the Boeing 767 three miles out. Okay, now here, a little bit later, after a few seconds of silence the FedEx pilot comes back in.

FEDEX PILOT: Tower confirm FedEx 1432 heavy is cleared to land on 18L?

AUSTIN TOWER: FedEx 1432 heavy, that is affirmative. Runway 18L, you are cleared to land. Traffic departing prior to your arrival is a B737.


CHAKRABARTI: I want to understand this, Paul.

RINALDI: All situational awareness right there, right? Okay. FedEx is questioning, that pilot has a display in their cockpit, they could see, they have their own radar and ADS-B is broadcasting. So they could see that Southwest is taking the runway. Southwest knows there's a heavy three mile final. So just the way that controller would say it, it's almost a key to tell Southwest, take this on a roll.

You got to move quickly. It's a three-mile final. I want to get you out. So everybody has the information. Which and then the controller comes back and says, "Yep, there's a departure prior to arrival and you're still clear to land."

CHAKRABARTI: It's interesting because I'm still struggling to hear, you mentioned where the first anomaly might've happened regarding that squeeze play, but not long after this, that moment of situational awareness that you just described.

We hear this.

FEDEX: Southwest abort. FedEx is on the go.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that's the FedEx pilot, if I understand correctly, talking directly to the Southwest pilot?

RINALDI: Which is, 31 years of experience. That's really unusual. I don't ever remember a pilot issuing a control instruction. Now, but the pilot, it wants to make this go around as safe as possible.

And he knows that Southwest took a while to spool up and start going, which is common first thing in the morning. This was the first flight in the morning. So they do some runaway checks, and they do a run up, what they would call with their engines, to make sure everything's functioning properly.

And then they start their departure roll. FedEx was getting very uncomfortable that Southwest is still on the runway. And that he's approaching the situation. He knows that if he goes around, he's going to go runway heading and climb, because that's probably the missed departure, or the go around route that he has to take.

So FedEx knows he's got to climb and go runway heading and he knows this is going to be a departure climbing run underneath them. That's why FedEx goes, "Avoid." Now I don't know the situation where the controller is at this point. It's important to give the controller some, maybe he's doing some collateral duties.

It's first thing in the morning, setting up for the day. And he gave all the information, cleared Southwest, cleared FedEx, thinking everything's good. The important thing to know is there is no ground radar here. There's no ASDE-X or ASSC program that has separation logic that would alert the controller that you have a situation here, and you need to take control of the situation.

So it's unfortunate that the pilot of FedEx takes control of the situation. But thank God he does at this time, because he's basically saved the day.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So there's more to this recording that we're going to hear after the break that we're going to take here. But obviously this is an example of what turned out to be a near miss. Everything, everyone landed and took off safely. We should say that, just before people get nervous, but it was a near miss. And the fact is that the number of near misses or the percentage of near misses in the United States in American aviation has been rising and quite dramatically in the past several years.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Before we get into the reasons why we're seeing an increased number of near misses, I want to finish up the interaction that we're analyzing between a Southwest flight, a FedEx flight and Austin Air Traffic Control in Texas from earlier this year. So Paul, where we left off was the FedEx flight telling the Southwest flight directly to abort, because FedEx was coming in for its landing.

Southwest was still in the process of taking off. And things looked very hairy there for a moment. In the air traffic control recording, this is what we hear next.

TOWER: Southwest 708, roger, you can turn right when able.


CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that's the tower telling Southwest 708, "You can turn right," and the Southwest pilot's saying, "That's not possible."

Now, Paul, from the FAA's subsequent investigation, we know that at this point the planes were Perhaps 100 feet or less apart. The next thing we hear is a command from the controller.

AUSTIN TOWER: FedEx 1432, climb and maintain 3000. When able you can turn left heading 080.

FEDEX: Turn 080, 3000. FedEx 1432 heavy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that's interaction with the FedEx 1432 flight.

And then quickly after that we hear:

AUSTIN TOWER: Southwest 708, you can turn left heading 170. FedEx 1432, turn left heading 360, contact approach on the 125.32.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Paul, what is the Austin Tower telling both of these flights right now, in that critical second?

RINALDI: When he says unable, Southwest doesn't take the first turn, I'm assuming, after looking at the simulation, the timing is correct.

It looks like Southwest is still on the ground. It's obviously not going to take a turn in the air, right? Because he's still on the ground. And FedEx was right in trying to stop, although it's very unconventional. Like I said, I don't ever remember a pilot taking control of another flight. But FedEx was trying to stop that, knowing that they were both going to fly over the runway.

One was going to be on the ground taking off. One is landing maybe 150 to 170 miles an hour, while one is standing still, starting to speed up. And three miles is faster than 170 miles an hour, right? So you just know that this is a very close one and looking at the situation, not a lot of things scare me.

I've seen a lot, I've been involved in a lot over the years. This one was very close. And the sad thing about this is if we had, if Austin Tower had the ground radar program that they should have, this could, this would not even have been an issue. Now, granted, we can question the controller's performance.

We can question Southwest's performance of taking that runway, knowing there's three miles out, and knowing they had to do it. It was going to be a little bit, a little time to do a run up. But the system's built on controllers and pilots communicating with each other, sharing information, and relying on each other.

And there by the grace of God, the FedEx pilot really did a fantastic job.

CHAKRABARTI: It sounds like what you're saying is that we have controllers and pilots relying on each other based on the information that they have, right? And that the ground radar could have given everybody more information at the time.

But I want to just play the last little bit of this interaction. So after those directives given by Austin Tower. Somehow, the FedEx plane manages to land safely.

FEDEX PILOT: FedEx 1432 is exiting L.

AUSTIN TOWER: FedEx 1432 heavy. Roger, report clear of the runway. You can join B and contact Ground on .9.

FEDEX PILOT: We’ll join B, Ground.9. And FedEx 1432 heavy is clear of the runway.

AUSTIN TOWER: FedEx 1432 heavy, roger, sir. You have our apologies. We appreciate your professionalism.

FEDEX: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, I just want to note, as a civilian flyer, not a pilot, but a passenger myself frequently, I am always deeply grateful and impressed by the calm professionalism in every one of these interactions keeping us safe in the skies.

We hear every person in this tape being the consummate professional, but Paul, from the perspective of the controller, put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Like what just happened from his perspective?

RINALDI: You could hear it in his voice. At least I can. His cadence has changed tremendously.

He thanked him for his professionalism. He knows that was way too close for comfort for anybody. And that should have never happened. And, like I said, you can Monday morning quarterback. You're not supposed to roll southwest in that situation. You're just, you're supposed to let FedEx land.

It's an ILS critical area you need to protect. The fog is super thick. I think it even went down from the time that FedEx got his runaway visual range, I think it was 1,400, to the time Southwest was taking off it was 1,200, so it went down 200 feet. These things you all have to take into account, and you could hear in the controller's voice. Like yeah, not my best decision, certainly not my best day. And what you really, you know, as a controller in that situation, everything is report your role. And if he would have just said something like report your role, he would have saw that Southwest was going to get eaten up on the runway by FedEx.

Because he didn't roll right away. And first thing in the morning, they're not going to roll right away. They have to do, they have to do their checklist and they have to do their engine run up. So that's just common. I don't know if this controller has a lot of experience, but that's just normal operation, "Don't bet on the come."

That's the famous word of air traffic control. When you train somebody, "Don't bet on the come." Control the situation and there was a lack of control and a lack of judgment on the controller's part. Okay.

CHAKRABARTI: Thank you for that, Paul, because people who are flying in these aircraft don't get to hear this stuff.

And this gave us a clear picture into, in fact, a bunch of the things I'd say that have been going on underneath the surface when it comes to aviation safety in this country. You mentioned technology. Maybe experience, because a lot of air traffic controllers are retiring. We're going to talk about all of these in just a moment. Because according to some reporting from the New York Times and the FAA itself, the number of near misses in this country has gone up 25% in the past several years.

Now let's put that in context. We're talking about several hundred, perhaps, in the past couple of years out of what 10 million passenger flights every year. So I want to put that in a little context. But of course, aviation is such a particular industry that given the catastrophes that can happen, if there are airplane collisions, we want that number of near misses to be zero, not growing.

So Paul Rinaldi, hang on for just a second. I want to bring Dorothy Robyn into the conversation. She's also in Washington. She's a senior fellow at Boston university. Institute for Global Sustainability and served as aviation point person in the Clinton White House. Dorothy, welcome to you.

DOROTHY ROBYN: Thank you, Meghna.

Great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm really glad to have both of you because now let's get into the sort of deeper analysis here that's revealed or that we should be talking about after understanding that tape that Paul walked us through. First of all, it seems as if things have been boiling under the surface for, what, 20, 30, maybe even 40 years, that are perhaps just coalescing right now in the number of near misses that we're seeing, Dorothy.

What do you think about that?

ROBYN: I think there is a short-term problem and a longer-term problem. I think in the near term, the number of near misses probably reflects the fact that we have a post pandemic fairly dramatic increase in air travel. And at the same time, so air travel is going up at the same time, the traditional experience level of pilots and controllers is going down, because so many pilots retired or took a buyout during the pandemic, and because we have a shortage of controllers. So I think that is a near term issue. But I think the lack of technology at the Austin airport, the shortage of controllers. Those are chronic problems.

Those go back to weaknesses in the U.S. air traffic control system that's been going on for decades.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so let's talk about the controller shortage for a few minutes more. Paul, walk me through a couple of the rules around air traffic controls. There's a mandatory retirement age, right?

RINALDI: That's correct. Age 56 is the mandatory retirement age, unless the FAA issues you a waiver and you want a waiver. And that waiver is for only one year. You have to make sure you maintain your medical security and all your background checks are up to snuff, so to speak.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, 56. So does that mean that we're seeing like a bump now in retirements because of the, I don't know, the average age or median age of an air traffic controller.

RINALDI: One of the reasons I retired is because I reached age 56. And I think that it's a very stressful occupation and you could just from that Austin event, you just hope this controller can recover from something like that. Because you could see it, or you can hear it in his voice that, that was a bad one.

Those type of things will stay with you the rest of your career. And you just have to be able to navigate through that. Most controllers do not make it to age 56. They can go with 20 years' experience at age 50. Or they can go 25 years of on the job, at any age, and a lot of them just go because it is a lot of stress, and you're working nights, you're working weekends, you're working holidays, and It's a very demanding job.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Dorothy, again, about the number of air traffic controllers currently in the system. We'll talk a little bit more later about why Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says they are, what, some 3,000 short of the ideal number. But I want to actually go back in time for a moment/ Because many listeners might remember that back in 1981, air traffic controllers went on strike.

They walked off the job striking for better pay and working conditions. And President Ronald Reagan really vowed to crush that strike.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I must tell those who failed to report for duty this morning, they are in violation of the law. And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs.

CHAKRABARTI: So Reagan ultimately followed through on that threat, firing more than 11,000 air traffic controllers, and Dorothy, that makes me presume that many more had to be hired in a shortish period of time and is part of what we're seeing. That those people hired right after 1981 or thereafter are aging out?

ROBYN: Paul may be a better person to answer that, but I do think you have seen, there are so many controllers who are hired after the PATCO firing. And you've seen that cohort go through and many of them retire at a similar time. So I don't know how much that, I think you can, I think the shortage is more than that, but I think that contributes to it.

CHAKRABARTI: Paul, do you want to just give us your quick take on that?

RINALDI: Sure, I was actually hired 10 years to the date that Ronald Reagan fired the airdrop controls on August 3rd, and I aged out in 2021. Anyone that was hired in that wave after the strike and after the firings were already aged out. The interesting thing is that the agency would, because of budget reasons, wouldn't keep a pipeline of controllers coming into the system.

They would say they reached their number, and then they would stop hiring. And that's, they've changed that mindset. Government shutdowns, threats of government shutdowns, budget concerns, certainly COVID, all of this played into the fact that you have to keep the FAA Academy open, which is in Oklahoma City. And keep a pipeline going through there. Because as I said, you can't count on everybody going to 56.

If they get 25 years and they're 48, they might retire or they retire at any time at age 50. So those are the things you really have to, that agency has to focus on. And it looks like they're actually have a different mindset now.

CHAKRABARTI: Just let me jump in here for a second because I just need to remind folks that I'm Meghna Chakrabarti and this is On Point.

Go ahead, Paul, pick up your thought.

RINALDI: So I just want to say, as far as the shortage, the only way to get hired as an air traffic control there's two ways, but the main way is a bid that comes out for everybody and 50,000 people might want the job. And the FAA has to figure a way to cull out that list and issue test.

And when they get down to it, the maximum amount of seats they could put through their academy every year is 1,800. And the FAA Academy is a screen. So you lose about 50% out of that 1,800. And so you're down to 900. And then you talk about issues with placement, somebody from California, and they place them in New York, and they don't want to go there.

Certainly, once they get to the facility, there's also a washout rate of another 15%, 20%. You're looking maybe about 750 out of the 1,800 three years later become certified. In the meantime, the FAA is projecting to lose 1,600 this year.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, that's interesting.

RINALDI: On their best year, they're looking at a net gain of 200.

But that's their best year.

CHAKRABARTI: That's their best. But in a way, the FAA prior to recent times has been behaving like a lot of even corporations, just hiring when they think they need them. But when you need them, it's actually too late, should have prepped for it a long time before that.

Point well taken, Paul. We'll talk about fixes later, but Dorothy, the other major sort of vein of reasoning behind why we're seeing those near misses, more near misses now, you said was technology.


CHAKRABARTI: Go ahead and elaborate on that.

ROBYN: Runway safety technology incursion prevention technology has come a long way.

Arnold Barnett, who's a statistician at MIT and aviation safety expert, who talks a lot about the incredible safety record in aviation. We should say there has not been a commercial aircraft crash since Colgan Air in 2009. And that's a remarkable record. One of the areas where there's been real improvement in technology is airport surfaces where planes are a lot closer together than at any place else in the whole system.

And the National Transportation Safety Board has told the air traffic organization, that part of the FAA that runs the air traffic operation, that they should be deploying ASDE-X, which is I think what Paul referred to when he talked about ground radar, much more rapidly. And they have not done that.

I think from what the head of NTSB said at the hearing, it's largely a resource issue. She said, whenever I talk about technology, the FAA says we don't have the resources. And she said, you need to get them the resources.

CHAKRABARTI: And by the way, hearing that mentioned, was actually fairly recently, there's been a lot of discussion across the course of this year regarding the need for technological and personnel improvements in the FAA.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I just want to play a moment from hearings last week. Dorothy, you had mentioned this, where the current president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Rich Santa, testified on aviation safety. And he called for more funding for the FAA to upgrade its communication technology and gave folks a picture of what it's like for air traffic controllers right now at work.

RICH SANTA: Last year's controllers at 40% of our facilities worked six-day work weeks at least once a month. And several of our facilities require six-day work weeks and 10-hour days every single week. Air traffic control is already a highly stressful profession, working 200 hours per month layers on significant fatigue and inserts additional risks into the NAS.

CHAKRABARTI: The NAS being the National Airspace System. We wanted to get the perspective of a pilot. Captain Jason Ambrosi is president of the Airline Pilots Association International. It's the union that represents more than 70,000 pilots in the United States and Canada.

And he told us about just how much pilots and the FAA's air traffic controllers rely on each other.

JASON AMBROSI: Between the pilots and the air traffic controllers, it's truly a partnership. You can't do this without the other. The system doesn't work without at least two well trained, qualified, and rested pilots on the flight deck at any time, as well as having our brothers and sisters in air traffic control on the ground to keep us separated and safe.

CHAKRABARTI: Ambrosi says that some of the challenges we've seen in the past three years specifically stem from the disruption caused by COVID-19. We've heard that already. Air traffic contracted greatly, and a lot of workers left the industry.

AMBROSI: Coming out of the pandemic, there's a lot of new in the system. We have, it's not just new pilots.

It's not just new controllers. It's new flight attendants. It's new mechanics. It's everybody. There's a lot of new in the system. And airlines pushed a little quick coming out of the recovery. And you saw early on in the recovery, how the operational reliability of the airlines suffered greatly because they overscheduled.

CHAKRABARTI: Ambrosi also agrees that at the FAA, the administration is too short staffed.

AMBROSI: We need more air traffic controllers. They'll tell you themselves that we need more air traffic controllers. Everybody is working as hard as they can. They're working a lot of overtime, and we appreciate that, but they need help and reinforcements on the way.

CHAKRABARTI: So this issue has really taken the attention or captured the attention of the highest levels of America's transportation system. Because Secretary Pete Buttigieg said back in May that the FAA was short, is short, about 3,000 controllers and he's talked a lot about that in the media since. Here he is on News Nation last month.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: We do see a concern in terms of the availability of enough air traffic control staffers, that you have backups if somebody calls in sick, or if there's a lot of pressure on a particular region or tower.

And in some areas, we're not at the staffing levels that I want us to see.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, we reached out to the FAA for this show. They didn't make anyone available for interview. They sent us a written statement, though, which includes quote, "The FAA hires controllers annually and have for decades. This year, the agency hired 1,500. Next year, we will hire 1,800.'

Keep that in mind because we heard what that process actually entails from Paul Rinaldi and the dropout rate in that hiring process. Now more fundamentally, Captain Jason Ambrosi says that the FAA needs funding not just to continue day to day operations now, but to invest in the future.

AMBROSI: We need long term stable funding for the FAA. So that we can get technology in place that assists pilots and controllers to move forward. Several airports have, for example, ground surveillance radar, and it helps controllers identify where airplanes are, but not all airports have it.

There's also simple things like runway status lights. So runway status lights, it's a mechanical system that basically just, if somebody crosses a line, it puts a red light on and says, "Don't take off." So it's something simple. It's just not cheap, right? Because running that wiring at all these long runways is not cheap.

But having those status lights is something that's easy technology that's readily available, and it should be implemented essentially everywhere.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, we're going to get back to the current funding situation at the FAA in just a quick second. But Paul, I wanted to interject here. Runway status lights.

That seems like a very, I don't want to say simple, but sensible technology. Is it in any U. S. airports or how many?

RINALDI: It is. I don't know I have the exact number of runway status lights, but it's something simple. And this Southwest/FedEx situation, that would not work because of the thickness of the fog.

And obviously the pilot has technology. You could see the FedEx pilot. Both Captain Ambrosi and President Rich Santa and the Secretary, actually even the Secretary of Transportation. They're correct. We're short controllers. We're lacking in modern technology, for sure. That's been a common theme for the last two decades.

And the important thing when the FAA says they hire controllers, they do. I give them full credit, they do higher controllers, but they've increased the number of certified controllers from FY 22 to FY 23. And this was in the testimony last week, by six. And they're saying the best year will be increased by 200.

If we're 3,000 down, and you only hire 1,800 a year. It's going to take 15 years to get back to normal, and that's just not acceptable. They have to figure a different way to hire controllers. We have college initiative training programs in Embry-Riddle, in Vaughn College, in UND, throughout the whole country and they used to use them as a valuable resource, and they stopped it.

They need to get back to that and augment the 1,800 that are going through Oklahoma City Academy and use them as a screen type facility and get them in our facilities. We need the help. We need the help now.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay so all of this, or so much of this, comes down to funding. Now, I'll be the first to say that not every government dollar is spent in the best way possible, but the funding question seems to be very urgent here, because in April, back in April, when the House voted to raise the U.S. debt limit and ensure that the government can't pay its bills, House Republicans attached deep cuts to domestic spending, including a potential 8% cut to the FAA. Now, to be fair, those cuts are unlikely to pass the Senate. They will certainly be vetoed by President Biden, if they ever made it that far.

But yesterday, the House passed yet another continuing resolution to narrowly avoid a government shutdown. So it'll keep the government open until January and February of next year, depending on the agency. That just happened yesterday. So a narrow avoiding of a government shutdown. But that also means that the debate over federal spending cuts is going to come back again in the beginning of 2024.

And just this month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described the impact targeted spending cuts could have on the FAA if they passed.

BUTTIGIEG: To absorb the 8% cut that they have proposed, we would have to totally freeze FAA hiring in operations and facilities. We'd be set back in modernizing systems like the NOTAM system that led to nationwide havoc with just a 90-minute outage earlier this year, and what's especially galling is that we see some of the same elected officials who have responded even to weather delays by blaming the administration. Now turning around and demanding that we cut resources for air traffic control.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, avoiding a government shutdown, in regards to that, House Speaker Mike Johnson said yesterday that he feels that making sure the government stays open is a matter of conscience for all members of Congress, but he added that he's not going to support another stopgap measure to keep the government open without the cuts that House Republicans have demanded, and he said, quote, "We're not surrendering. But you have to choose the fights you can win," end quote.

Okay, Dorothy we're always looking for solutions here because one thing, one thing is for certain, as a federal agency, the FAA is always going to have to bear the stress of appropriations. So is there a way to insulate air traffic control from the vagaries of government decision making?

ROBYN: Meghna, there is a better way. There really is, and we only have to look at Canada to see it. Let me, the air traffic control system is not inherently governmental. Doing what Paul did for 30 years is not an inherently governmental activity. It's safety critical. It's very sophisticated, but the same can be said of building a Boeing 787 or operate in an airline.

These are things that are done by the private sector, subject to regulation by the FAA. That's number one. Number two, precisely because operating the air traffic control system is operational/commercial in nature. We do it very poorly, because we do it out of a traditional government agency, a regulatory agency.

They are subject to the whims of Congress because that's where they get their appropriation. The FAA is like a green plant that moves toward the sun. They treat Congress as their customer rather than airline operators, much less the traveling public. They are subject to the stop and go nature of government, of the government budget process.

They are subject to all of the crazy things that are unavoidable for most government activities, but are avoidable.

CHAKRABARTI: So I hear you creeping towards the let's just get air traffic control out of the FAA.

ROBYN: Yeah, yes, exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Privatization, corporatization, whatever you want to call it.

ROBYN: Yeah, I prefer corporatization.

The P word became a pejorative in the most recent debate. We tried to do this in the Clinton administration. We tried to spin it off as a government corporation with a board, and a CEO and the ability to borrow money from treasury or go to private debt markets, hugely important.

You're talking about 20-year investments. You can't make those kind of investments if you're a government agency, you have to pay for things up front, nor can you make the kind of incremental improvements that air traffic control needs. Our proposal was dead on arrival. There was a more sustained, nearly successful effort in 2018 led by Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Paul and I testified twice, but that, too, was unsuccessful.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, let me jump in here. Paul, I want to just get your quick take on this. Maybe Dorothy already gave us a hint of what it might be. As an actual air traffic controller, do you see the idea of pulling air traffic control out of the regulatory, out of the FAA as a regulatory organization, a plausible or even favorable idea.

RINALDI: I supported it in 2018 because you could see exactly, we're not able, everyone likes to throw around the FAA is the gold standard in aviation. We have the best air traffic controllers in the world, without a doubt, certainly the best pilots and the best airlines in the world, but we're not the gold standard anymore when it comes to our air traffic control equipment.

It's aging. It needs to be replaced. You heard on the beginning, our information systems are updated with, some of them with floppy disks. You can't even turn them off. They're on 3, 6 computers.

We're walking around our towers with paper strips and Canada's, the UK system, Australia, New Zealand, they've all pulled the operation, the ATO, I call it the ANSP. They pulled it away from the regulatory and the oversight and made its own structure. When you buy an airline ticket, you pay a lot of taxes. Those taxes go to airport airways trust fund. That trust fund funds the FAA at roughly about 90%, 95%.

You could use that to actually run an organization and it doesn't have to be private. It could be corporate. It could be, it could even be in government. Just can't be subject to the whims of who's in the White House or who's controlling Congress and the budget. They need money to modernize their system or else. In 2018, I stood up for and said do you still support it?

I go, the system, there's alarms going off everywhere about our system. Now's the time to actually address it while they have an FAA reauthorization bill on the table. Say, we've got to do something here. Something serious is about to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Oh my gosh, you're describing a floppy disks and paper strips.

Made me like half wonder if we're having Fortran as a public, as a programming language still at the FAA.

RINALDI: Not too long ago it was, just so we're clear.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But Dorothy, before we we're running out of time, and I wanted to just a quick check on something. You mentioned that just look to the north in Canada, they've essentially done what you're talking about, but what it comes down to is safety record.

Do they have an acceptable safety record even with this different organization of their air traffic control?

ROBYN: Absolutely. Yes. No, I think safety has only gone up, 60 plus countries have now taken the air traffic operation out of the traditional regular civil aviation regulatory agency and made it a independent business-like entity.

Canada has a unique model, which I particularly like, but safety has only improved. In fact, right now, I should be explicit. The FAA is both operating and regulating the air traffic control system. That is a conflict of interest, and it violates a directive from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is the body that aviation authorities look to for guidance.

So can I just read you a sentence from a column by Scott McCartney who was the aviation, he wrote the Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal for many years, and he is a general aviation pilot and he said that "Flying north to south over the U. S. Canadian border is like time travel for pilots, as you leave a modern air traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up."

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. We have 30 seconds left. I always do this and my staff laughs at me. I'm going to ask a big question. What do you see right now, Dorothy, as preventing even people in government from listening to an idea like this?

ROBYN: The impediment, for as for as long as I've known, is it hasn't been labor.

It has been general aviation and specifically business aviation, the National Business Aviation Association, the 0.1% that fly 100 million gulf streams and pay very paltry fees to use the system.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So the fees for aviation operators would be part of how a privatized or corporatized air traffic control system would work.

Okay. Wow. It seems like we just got to the beginning of something very interesting, but as both of you mentioned, like the almost immediate term probably FAA has comes with the potential for more cuts or having to ask for more money.

This program aired on November 15, 2023.


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Daniel Ackerman Floating Producer
Daniel Ackerman is a producer primarily working across WBUR's national shows.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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