Opinion

It is Time for Washington to Modernize Our Airspace

Even if air travel isn’t on your list of favorite activities, our country’s airspace affects the daily lives of almost every single American – frequently in ways they wouldn’t expect.

When people think of our airspace, the first thing that often comes to mind is the commercial airline industry. However, with COVID-19 still lingering with no confident end in sight, air carrier package delivery and telecommunications that require satellites are currently much more prevalent. And the possibilities are only growing.

For example, drone delivery for both commercial and medical purposes is quickly expanding. Amazon has gone “all-in” on this innovative opportunity and now has fulfillment centers utilizing drone delivery in over 40 U.S. states, while pharmacies are beginning to consider the drone transport of medications. These are just the tip of the iceberg for how our airspace and its use are rapidly changing.

Now, as we shift into the second decade of the 21st century, it is abundantly clear that our skies need an upgrade to keep pace. To do this, we need a fully modernized national airspace program that allows for smarter and more friendly skies, while remaining cost-effective and flexible. This is largely the reason we formed Consumers for A Modern Airspace. As new innovative services and technologies become available, it is critical to remember that our infrastructure must also follow suit.

This can be made possible with the FAA Enterprise Network Services  Program.

Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a bid request for FENS, a new project set to replace the FAA Telecommunication Infrastructure Program. FTI has served us well for almost two decades. But given that we are spending $3 billion a year on it, and it’s working at full capacity, we are overdue for an upgrade. FENS represents the true opportunity we have as a country to evolve current airspace technologies while also meeting the challenges of our economy and the needs of consumers.

Though it may appear far off, the future is already here. Following a successful launch to the International Space Station, SpaceX has planned 10 more rocket launches in this year alone. Air commerce is shaping up to be the next frontier. With drones filling our skies at a record pace, and Uber talking about the reality of air taxis, it is hard to miss how busy our skies already are and are going to become. Therefore, it is imperative that our leaders consider all the necessary factors – like cost-effectiveness and program flexibility – to achieve a successfully modernized airspace for consumers.

Decision makers have been presented with an opportunity to make lasting change for our nation’s airspace infrastructure. But, the speed in which technology is changing is much faster than the speed of government. While this is not all that surprising, the FAA should seize on this opportunity to deliver smarter skies for the American people. The future of our country’s innovation depends on this.

No matter how cool air taxis, commercial space flight and drone delivery of packages and medications may sound, these types of technologies will be impossible to manage if our airspace program is not flexible and secure enough to handle them.

Though COVID-19 continues to introduce new challenges for our country, it presents an opportune moment to transition our airspace systems. More people staying home means there are fewer aircraft in our skies right now than any time in recent history. This environment will make for a smoother transition, as the FTI program cannot go down for even a second during the onboarding process. This is critical to preserve the safety of our skies as we upgrade the systems.

Preserving the safety of our skies throughout the transition process is especially important for the commercial airlines that are still operating throughout COVID-19, not to mention their passengers. Cybersecurity hacks are on the rise and targeting airlines in numbers never seen before. In 2019, Southwest Airlines suffered a computer outage that temporarily grounded its flights across the country. This type of outage is brought on by hackers looking to disrupt our systems, and passengers inevitably suffer the consequences. To better combat this, and protect passengers, the FAA must prioritize robust cybersecurity when awarding FENS.

America is changing, and so are its technologies. It is necessary that the FAA ensures our airspace’s next system is flexible, reliable and cost-efficient to keep pace. If it does, not even the sky will limit the possibilities.

Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and co-founder of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

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