America’s small towns are in trouble. Despite 85 consecutive months of job growth and predictions by economists that the country is nearing full employment, main streets in Missouri, Kansas and just about everywhere else are struggling. Revitalizing these communities — historically our nation’s cultural and commercial backbone — is a political and economic imperative that ranks among the greatest challenges of our time. How to address these problems and what policy prescriptions to apply at the local, state and federal level have been hotly debated by politicians of all stripes for decades.
All the while, the problem has gotten progressively worse. What we know for certain is that before we can reverse the damage done, we need to stanch the bleeding. That’s why the debate over the future of the nation’s air traffic control system is so important. For hundreds of communities, including several in Missouri and Kansas, small regional airports serve as a critical lifeline connecting people and markets. When an airport shuts down or a commercial route is canceled, the result is often crippling. Preserving commercial air service for small towns is a necessity, but an often-overlooked aspect of the debate in Congress.
Like so much of our nation’s critical infrastructure, America’s air traffic control system is woefully antiquated. In an age when almost every consumer electronic device on the market — from phones to watches — is embedded with space-based GPS radio navigation, the system that guides every airplane from takeoff to landing still relies on World War II-era radar towers. While many have focused on the cost to big-city travelers in the form of delays and longer flight routes, small communities are forced to bear the brunt of the issue.
There is nothing that illustrates this better than what the industry refers to as block time. It is simply the total amount of time a flight takes, from pushing back from the departure gate to arriving at the destination gate. Since 2006, airlines have had to increase their average scheduled block times to fly between the same points A and B by 33 million minutes. In the last decade alone, the block time for Kansas City to Chicago flights has increased by 11 percent. While some of that increase is driven by airlines’ desire to maintain a high on-time rating, the largest component is that air traffic control inefficiencies have led to more congestion and slower flights. These capacity issues have reduced airlines’ ability to profitably offer service to smaller airports and hurt communities throughout the country.
The result is visible across the Kansas City region. In the last decade, Kansas City International has lost flights to 29 destinations, including to crucial regional towns like Joplin, Columbia, Salina, Hays and Manhattan. Today, Joplin offers scheduled service only to Dallas, and Hays offers service only to Denver.
Suppose that U.S. carriers could once again save those 33 million minutes that have been lost since 2006. Those 33 million minutes — the equivalent of nearly 1,000 pilots — could be used to add capacity and reduce cost systemwide. Eliminating that waste would result in two more departures per day from small communities, increasing capacity and lowering costs. That’s a pretty big win for airports that have lost an average of nearly four departures per day since 2006.
Now, after decades of inaction, Congress has the opportunity to fix what is broken with our air traffic control system. To its credit, the Trump administration has advanced a bipartisan proposal to permanently fix the problem. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee on aviation, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt has a unique opportunity to show leadership and bring much needed reform. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Jerry Moran, Rep. Sam Graves and the rest of the region’s congressional delegation should seize this opportunity and get on board. Failure to act will not only burden air travelers with even more needless delays and lost productivity, it will hurt communities throughout the Kansas City region.
William Swelbar is a research engineer at MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation.