Overcrowded skies, too few controllers? The same story has been told countless times over the years

I wonder how many times in the years since I earned my pilot certificate in 1969 I’ve read an article — in a non-aviation newspaper — about the crisis that will occur in the coming crowded skies and the absence of an adequate number of air traffic controllers to handle all of those aircraft.

It must be that when news stories are slow the editor looks around the newsroom and realizes that the person assigned to cover aviation isn’t doing anything very important, so he (or maybe she) is awakened and asked to check out the status of future aircraft operations and controllers.

The reporter, who more than likely is not a pilot or air traffic controller or whose only experience with aviation is having flown on several airlines — occasionally there’s one who actually took half a dozen flight lessons over a period of 10 years — thinks about the assignment and logs onto Google.

After numerous false starts, he finds his way to the regional FAA office, where he is further directed to a website for the FAA. From this site and with a couple of short interviews, the reporter determines that the air is going to be filled with airliners, business aircraft and private planes over the next 20 years and, according to the air traffic controller he caught at the airport, there aren’t going to be anywhere near enough controllers to keep all these planes from crashing into one another.

In one scenario or another, I’ve read this story countless times.

What brought all this to mind the other day was a half-page article in The New York Times. The headline read: “Flying the crowded skies: Challenges for aviation.”

The first paragraph reads: “By 2023, government experts say, America’s skies will swarm with three times as many planes, and not just the kind of traffic flying today. There will be thousands of tiny jets, seating six or fewer, at airline altitudes, competing for space with remotely operated drones that need help avoiding mid-air collisions and with commercially operated rockets carrying satellites and tourists into space.”

Wow!

Even if there are thousands more airplanes certificated in the next 20 years, there are thousands more that will be at the end of their lives and will either fly extremely infrequently or not at all. I don’t think there will be thousands more airplanes in the air at the same time.

And, even if there are a lot more planes up there, this is still a great big country. As technology has made it easier for aircraft to go point-to-point instead of indirect airways flights, more space will continue to open up for them, rather than make the skies more crowded.

Of course Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Boston and a few more areas will get busy when all the airline flights want to take off at the same time. Ditto when every airline at an airport schedules a dozen flights to arrive at 6:48 pm.

You know what?

I think the advances in technology are going to make tighter flight operations possible by 2025 — and it probably won’t require any more air traffic controllers than are available today because of better collision avoidance instrumentation and better enroute and approach instrumentation.

One big problem is that the FAA says it has to upgrade all its radar and communications equipment. That’s going to be a big and complex job, FAA officials declare, and you can spell that very, very expensive and filled with budget overruns and lengthy implementation delays. That’s been the history of every FAA system enhancement that has ever been attempted and I doubt this one will be any different.

When you start talking about expenses and overruns, the question turns to who is going to pay for all this. The airlines say they’re already paying their share by collecting ticket-tax money and passing it along. They want to see the funding provided through user fees. In other words, when you file a flight plan or call the tower for clearance, or get an IFR clearance or check on weather or tell the tower you are out there and ready to land, you’ll pay a fee.

General aviation, including business aviation, says we’re already paying our fair share through fuel taxes and that is more than enough.

Don’t forget that the airports – air carrier and non – are all going to want more money for equipment, too.

I think the answer has to lie in technology: the added technology to make better, more efficient use of the runways and the airspace and the technology to get enhanced systems in place on time and for less money. We also need to be sure that technology will allow airplanes to operate safely despite the weakest link in the system – humans.

And, oh yes, we have to watch out for all those drones out there, as well as the “commercially operated rockets carrying satellites and tourists into space.”

Dave Sclair was GAN’s co-publisher from 1970-2000

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