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Jim Burnley, a Venable partner and Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, was among several transportation pundits quoted in a February 10, 2009 Fox Business News about the idea advanced by many aviation industry experts who say the economic downturn could provide a chance to upgrade a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure while the physical strain is at weakest.

While the economy suffers from the worst recession in decades, former air transportation officials and aviation experts said that the nation’s air traffic control system needs to be upgraded quickly in order to keep up with demand. While the Federal Aviation Administration has a calendar to finish upgrading to a GPS-based system (which could cost up to $15 billion) by 2020, the $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package may provide a unique opportunity to finish the program early.

“The technology needed to upgrade our air traffic control system is mature and ready to go,” said Burnley. “The FAA is ready to implement this program, it's just an issue of lack of resources."

Currently, the nation’s air traffic control system has its origins in the 1950s, using radar as a way to track the nation’s daily average of 31,000 aircraft departures. The problem with radar, which uses electromagnetic waves to track aircraft, is it’s too inaccurate to track aircraft precisely, forcing air traffic controllers to space pilots further apart than airplanes need to be.

As the modernization plan currently stands, the FAA calculates the nation’s air traffic control system will be upgraded both with the appropriate technology and training by the year 2020.

“This is a situation where the timing and need [means putting] additional funds into upgrading our nation’s air traffic control system will do great good where this economy needs it most,” Burnley said.