Landing at an American airport is a bit like time-traveling into the
past. Outdated design, outdated technology, and outdated regulations are
crippling many U.S. air hubs.
Aviation was born in the U.S., and very quickly, American airplanes
and American-trained pilots formed the backbone of global aviation.
North America remains the world’s largest aviation market today, yet
U.S. air transport is no longer the envy of other nations.
America ranks a mediocre number 30 in the world for quality of air
infrastructure, as measured by a survey of executives—and 127 in ticket
taxes and airport charges (meaning they’re too high). The country ranks
an even lower (131) in carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
There are greater worries ahead: the American Society of Civil
Engineers argues that a failure to invest in aviation could represent an
estimated cumulative loss of $313 billion by 2020—translating into
350,000 fewer jobs—and a whopping $1.52 trillion by 2040.
The U.S. system is characterized by crowded skies; price competition
among airlines and resulting low profitability; competition among
airports, leading to congestion in some places and wasted capacity in
others; outdated ground facilities; a dearth of intermodal links such as
air-to-train connections; high fuel utilization and air pollution; slow
technological uptake; and dependence on outdated intergovernmental
agreements for access to foreign markets.
The U.S. is falling short and falling behind. That’s true even on the
cargo side: Hong Kong has already replaced Memphis as the world’s
number one air cargo hub. Today, international travelers represent 11
percent of total U.S. airline passengers.
They contribute more than $116 billion in direct spending and another
billion in indirect spending annually. For all of that, they are being
underserved: the World Economic forum ranks the U.S. 121st out of 180 countries in terms of the burden of its visa requirements.
are many major airports in the United States, but few are considered
good by today’s global standards. In a 2013 survey of the world’s best
airports, 12 million passengers ranked more than 400 airports across 39
categories—and no American airport was even in the top 25.
Only four U.S. airports made it into the top 50. Nations in the
Middle East and East Asia are building new, efficient, intermodal,
technology-enhanced airports, while the U.S. lags behind on basics like
core infrastructure. In some U.S. airports, there is no single
communication network everyone can use; an emergencies can overload
Development of airports has been left to cities and regions. Local
authorities are often focused on the land rather than landing – the
value of retail sales or real-estate near airport facilities, rather
than potential throughput, intermodal efficiency, or actual passenger
As a result, one of the biggest problems with U.S. airports now is
reaching them: if you’ve taken a train directly to an airport, it was
probably in another country. Our largest cities (New York, Los Angeles,
and Chicago) have no means of direct mass-transit from their airports to
the population cores, although Atlanta Hartsfield airport is an
exception in its light rail connections.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, has brand new high-speed rail that runs every
four minutes, complete with fully integrated baggage check-in at their
Central railway station downtown.
the aviation industry has figured out how to lift millions of pounds of
aluminum, fuel, cargo, and passengers 35,000 feet into the air—a
technological feat in and of itself—its technology is in desperate need
of modernization. Ticket agents are often part-time coders, untangling
software written in the early 1960s. Cockpit controls look like museum
installations when compared to the iPads passengers are using.
Information empowers. Empowered pilots in empowered aircraft can
empower passengers—or at least enlighten them. Real-time decision-making
can reduce costs and minimize delays. The FAA estimates, for instance,
that two-thirds of weather delays are avoidable.
Superior weather information would make it possible to predict
airspace and route availability, as well as delays, diversions, and
tarmac risk. With greater forecast accuracy for pilots, control towers,
and operations centers, airlines could carry less contingency fuel, and
flight planners could better anticipate ground holds, deicing, and
The costs of fuel-burn while taxiing amount to $25 per minute;
diversions cost about $15,000 to $100,000 per aircraft; and an FAA
tarmac delay penalty runs to about $27,500 per passenger. These numbers
can add up to millions of dollars on a full flight
Technological innovations provide new hope for U.S. aviation. The
Weather Company is growing a service that helps airlines use weather
data to change travel paths to avoid turbulence, delivering a smoother,
safer, faster, and more efficient travel experience.
The FAA is allowing trial use of iPads to in the cockpit. Airlines
are exploring glide-path landing to reduce fuel use and noise during
descents. Yet, the barrier to progress is often the burdensome and
bureaucratic process of regulatory approval. Modernized oversight is
needed to speed up adoption of newer and better technologies.
Michael Smith/Getty Images
associations have called for a national strategy to make America’s air
transport system better for everyone who uses it. Imagine flying with
pilots empowered by technology to make better decisions for passengers.
Imagine next-generation air traffic control generating quintuple wins:
greater safety, lower costs, fewer delays, lower carbon emissions, and
America’s air traffic control entity should be made independent—free
from the short-term Congressional budget cycle—and the FAA and
Department of Transportation should collaborate on moving promising
technology forward faster.
Being able to fly with fewer delays won’t be enough if there are also
major delays in getting to and from airports with shabby facilities.
American institutions operate in silos too often, while airlines fly
above them all. If the American public demands an upgraded national air
strategy, it can be done.