Landing at an American airport is a bit like time-travelling 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 Outdated design, outdated technology, and outdated regulations are crippling many U.S. air hubs.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 aeroplanes 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 $US313 billion by 2020 — translating into 350,000 fewer jobs — and a whopping $US1.52 trillion by 2040.
The U.S. system is characterised 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low profitability; competition among airports, leading to congestion in some places and wasted capacity in others; outdated ground facilities; a dearth of intermodal links such as air-to-train connections; high fuel utilization and air pollution; slow technological uptake; and dependence on outdated intergovernmental agreements for access to foreign markets.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 travellers represent 11 per cent of total U.S. airline passengers.
They contribute more than $US116 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.
There 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 mobile phone systems.
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 mobility.
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.
While the aviation industry has figured out how to lift millions of pounds of aluminium, 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 minimise 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 centres, airlines could carry less contingency fuel, and flight planners could better anticipate ground holds, deicing, and capacity changes.
The costs of fuel-burn while taxiing amount to $US25 per minute; diversions cost about $US15,000 to $US100,000 per aircraft; and an FAA tarmac delay penalty runs to about $US27,500 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. Modernised oversight is needed to speed up adoption of newer and better technologies.
Industry 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 seamless connections.
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.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s latest book is MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. She is a professor at Harvard Business School.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.