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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

Change is in the air traffic control tower

Tim Fitzsimons May 15, 2015
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Momentum is growing for major changes to the U.S. air traffic control system, which, believe it or not, uses radar, not GPS, to land planes.

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice present for policy at Airlines for America, says getting rid of radar would increase efficiency.

“It would enable us to put planes closer together and be more accurate in our prediction in weather and working around weather,” she says.

But American skies are already some of the safest in the world. So why the urgency? The Federal Aviation Administration’s budget has become a political football in Congress, and that’s rattled air traffic controllers.

“They want to see stable, predictable, long-range planning and funding to modernize the system,” says Jim Burnley, who was transportation secretary under Ronald Reagan.

The union, he says, “has now made very clear in the last couple of months that it is willing to look at serious alternatives to the present structure of air traffic control.”

But proposals are still vague. Some want to reform but keep the agency inside the government, others want it privatized. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, says the Pentagon has told him it’s weary of giving airspace control to a private group.

“Do we want to do the same old thing, maybe try to patchwork it in place?” he says. “Or do we want to do something iterative and say, ‘OK, we’re going to make a major change to try and solve some of the long-term problems with this agency’?”

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