NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

FAA's Antiquated Control Systems Delay Flights

September 1, 1999

Airline flight delays have reached record levels -- climbing 70 percent in July from the previous year. While weather causes 75 percent of all delays, experts blame the remainder on what they see as the Federal Aviation Administration's clumsy and chaotic control of the skies -- and its traffic control system designed for the 1960s.

  • After an airliner takes off, the airport tower hands the plane over to one of 22 regional centers, which in turn passes flights along to other centers throughout the journey -- a system which has come under intense criticism and is about to be changed.
  • In order to better manage their growing workload, controllers have imposed 60-mile separation requirements between airplanes -- superseding the standard minimum of five miles for planes cruising at high altitudes.
  • FAA and airline officials have uncovered numerous instances where controllers were slowing traffic based on inaccurate information -- or simply for their own convenience.
  • Recognizing that coordination between the centers is poor, the FAA last month centralized decision-making by shifting the burden to its massive command bunker in Herndon, Va.

Many of the problems can be traced to a troubled upgrade of computer systems at the regional control centers. A recent internal evaluation of the system by a team of airline and FAA experts revealed, for example, controllers using the wrong settings on new weather radar displays.

Source: Scott McCartney, "A Crush of Air Traffic, Control-System Quirks Jam the Flight Lanes," Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1999.


Browse more articles on Government Issues