With all the talk about using taxpayer funds to stimulate economic growth, you’d have to think that someone in Washington would have remembered how important air travel is to a healthy economy.
Right now corporate America is rationing travel. Travel, in turn, is only getting more costly. But travel is integral to the growth of business, so you can only limit business travel so much in the short term before lack of business travel affects your business’s long-term growth prospects.
The federal government has had its head in the ground on supporting an air travel infrastructure overhaul. Our airports are outdated, our runways need expansion, and our air traffic control system isn’t so much controlling air traffic as it is making a stab at managing it.
I’m surprised that when the stimulus packaged passed, the long-delayed Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) wasn’t near the top of the list. Proponents of NextGen remind me that the U.S. is still flying routes that were determined practically back in the barnstorming days. Today’s jets fly vastly inefficient parabolas. Our air traffic still operates under the limitations of our antiquated ground-based radar technology. By contrast, NextGen’s satellite-based GPS navigation will enable planes to fly in closer proximity on direct routes, cutting travel time, as well as fuel consumption, pollution, and cost. State of the art digital communications and weather forecasting are other benefits.
In fact, more accurate weather forecasting is a huge part of NextGen. The weather accounts for some 70 percent of air traffic delays. That translates into an estimated annual economic loss of some $40 billion (I have no idea where they get that number from). NextGen will transform air travel because it will permit higher-density air traffic patterns in spite of inclement weather; and it would also provide pilots with better information about weather threats like in-flight icing.
In fact, the benefits are so profound and so obvious that it’s a wonder Air Transport Association (ATA) chief Glenn Tilton is still out lobbying for this change. Perhaps it’s because so many people view business travel as a discrete, elective activity, rather than as a massive contributor to the nation’s economic well-being. We saw what happened to our economy after 9/11 and yet it seems like we have not learned the lesson. Instead of pushing to improve our air transportation system in the wake of the downturn, the push seems to be to cut costs, like investment in air travel, to shorten the downturn. I think we’ve got it backwards. Infrastructure like NextGen is what is going to grow our economy. The value proposition has to be that air travel is key. Air travel and the economy are not separate, they’re totally entwined.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com