Aviation Leaders Call for ATC Infrastructure Boost

 - April 1, 2021, 8:38 AM

As President Joe Biden rolled out his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal that includes $25 billion for airports, aviation community leaders are also appealing for increased investments in the broader aviation infrastructure that they say is aging and in urgent need of upgrade.

Speaking during Wednesday’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit, FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims called runways “the launchpads that fill world commerce and economies.” But, he added, “Runways won’t take you anywhere without a huge and largely unseen investment in infrastructure that supports the entire aviation systems and this nation.”

Mimms cited the air traffic control facilities, ground-based navigation aids, radar, airport lighting, and instrument landing systems as among the many examples. While air traffic control and technical specialists have kept the system operating and reliable, he said many of the systems have become outdated.

“The time to act is now because the aviation infrastructure is showing its age,” Mims said, and noted the FAA has a backlog of nearly $5 billion in upgrade and modernization programs for its facilities and systems, and “a great many of those need it now.” Overall, Mims further stated, the FAA has about $3 billion in unfunded infrastructure requirements through 2030. 

“When we talk about infrastructure and sustainment investment in the country as a whole, it is very important that we do not forget about the airspace system and its backbone, the facilities and the equipment that make the system available 24/7/365, and more importantly, when we need it most,” he said. “Aviation infrastructure must be right up there with our highways, railways, and waterways in terms of importance.”

Thales North America CEO Alan Pellegrini echoed those statements during the chamber summit while announcing the establishment of a Ground-Based Aviation Infrastructure Coalition. Founded by Thales and a half-dozen aviation infrastructure equipment providers, the coalition is “fighting for the rapid modernization of this important infrastructure to strengthen the resilience of the aviation system,” Pellegrini said.

For the past 20 years, the FAA has remained heavily focused on implementing NextGen to allow more efficient flight operations in the national airspace, he said.

“To fund NextGen, aviation infrastructure investments were substantially reduced from historic levels,” Pelligrini noted. He cited estimates that capital investments in new infrastructure have declined 30 percent, while operations and maintenance costs have risen 12 percent. “Today, nearly 50 percent of the instrument landing systems operating are 1970s-era technology,” he said, noting that 50 years “is a long time for any system, especially those that enable aircraft to safely land in all weather conditions.”

More concerning to him, he added, is that officials during an FAA briefing last fall indicated that some systems might need to operate 80 years before they get an upgrade. “These systems were not designed for such long life spans," he said. "If we expect to maintain an aviation system that is affordable and reliable, we must prioritize and, importantly, fund aviation infrastructure investments to allow the U.S. to continue to have the safest aviation system in the world.”

Pelligrini pointed to global air navigation service providers that systematically modernize equipment before they reach the end of their service life and suggested that the U.S. civil aviation system continues to fall behind. “This issue can no longer be put off,” he said. “We must modernize with the target that the average age of our ground-based infrastructure is reduced to less than its design lifetime by 2030. This is a reasonable goal.”

Pellegrini listed benefits beyond improving the aviation system’s resilience, including adding jobs, lowering maintenance costs, and cutting carbon emissions. “We advocate that any federal infrastructure package include provisions to address this critical segment of aviation,” he said.

Other coalition members include Antenna Products, dB Systems, Moog, New Bedford Panoramex, Parsons Corp., and Leonardo’s Selex ES unit.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas offered his support for the coalition and its mission. “As aviation technology in the U.S. continues to age, it is vital we remain committed to modernizing this important technology,” he said.