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Change in the air

The other day while thumbing through some official-looking government documents, I ran across these words on an otherwise empty sheet of paper: “This page intentionally left blank.” Does anyone else besides me stop to ponder the irony? For one thing, the page has not been left blank, intentionally or otherwise; it’s got those words printed on it. And what would the page look like if it had been unintentionally left blank?

Among the documents in that same dusty filing box was an FAA publication from 1990 entitled The National Airspace Plan. The rather impressive tome laid out step-by-step the proposed implementation of several interwoven technologies that would vastly improve the efficiency of air traffic in the US. In its day, it was the height of visionary problem solving for a very thorny issue.

That was in its day. The intervening decades have seen lightning fast technology change, budgetary constraints and political battles, all conspiring to hobble the NAS Plan. In the interests of fairness, we should point out that some of those solutions are actually in the field right now. But not nearly all of them. We should also add that even if one were to wave a magic wand and make all the NAS Plan’s dreams come true today, they would inadequate and woefully out of date for our 21st century aviation system.

Last month, in the midst of more-intense-than-usual political theatre swirling around Washington, DC, President Trump made an announcement from the White House proposing sweeping changes to the nation’s air traffic control system. The proposal called for the ATC system to be managed by a private non-profit organization paid for by aviation users, a move which, he said, would produce billions in capital to fund deployment of modern, satellite-based aircraft navigation and control.

Of course, as a frequent flier I’m all in favor of anything which makes aviation safer, more reliable, more efficient and maybe even cheaper. But as I’m pondering this latest proposal, I’m looking at the page that has been intentionally left blank. What don’t we know? While practically no one likes the system the way it is, everyone has a different idea to reform it. Despite support from a wide range of aviation interests, opponents are already lining up. Which means this plan, like the NAS Plan before it and lots of other ideas since, is in for a long uphill battle.

So why is this? To be sure, technology has advanced to the point where we can pinpoint our exact location practically anywhere on the globe, yet air traffic controllers have to rely on systems that are decades out of date. On the other hand, we worry about taking away direct government involvement in a system that – at least from a safety standpoint – works pretty darned well.

Before we start pointing fingers at bureaucrats and congresspersons, perhaps all of us should take a long look in the mirror. Maybe it’s just when it comes to change, foot-dragging is human nature. Few of us qualify as all-out early adopters, ready to embrace every new trend. Be honest now – how many still carry a printed boarding pass, just in case our phone dies?  I know I do.

It comes down to the real reason change is so difficult for so many; it’s just hard to leave the familiar and bring ourselves to trust something new. This can be true of technology, or the latest products, or – perhaps especially – of long-standing, tried-and-true ways of doing things.

Which brings us to the corollary to our theory of change: It’s hard to leave the familiar and trust something new. But, as the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

In other words, change is a lot easier – if it works.

By Dan Booth