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U.S. Travel Association leader speaks on recent travel woes, and possible solutions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If it feels like we've been talking about air travel a lot lately, well, we are. A historically bad winter storm canceled many flights during the holiday travel season. A software meltdown at Southwest Airlines followed that winter storm. And this morning, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted all domestic flights from taking off after a critical safety system failed. No U.S. flights were put at risk, but over 9,000 were delayed today, over 1,300 canceled, and that's according to the tracking service FlightAware.

Geoff Freeman is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association and is here to help us understand how the travel industry views this. Hi there. Welcome.

GEOFF FREEMAN: Juana, it's good to be with you.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So today you issued a statement saying that the country's transportation network, quote, "desperately needs significant upgrades." So specifically, what upgrades are we talking about here? What are your first priorities?

FREEMAN: Well, to the point that you were making in the opening, you know, this is one in a long line of problems we've had in the air travel system. More than 20% of flights in 2022 were delayed or canceled. We've got a thousand fewer air traffic controllers today than we had 10 years ago. We haven't had a head of the FAA in nearly a year. We simply are not investing in the technology, in the people that we need to build an air-travel experience that the traveling public can appreciate, an experience that they enjoy, an experience they deserve.

SUMMERS: So I heard you, there, talk about people, also technology. And today, the particular system which went offline is something called the Notice to Air Missions system. Do the companies that you represent argue that that is among the technologies that needs an upgrade, or what technologies are you specifically looking at here?

FREEMAN: Yeah. Today's system is absolutely critical. It helps pilots understand, in real time, how things are changing on the ground or weather and other issues. It's a critical system, and they can't fly without it. The challenge is, so much of the technology that we're using in the air-travel system is 1960s technology and 1970s technology. This is the type of stuff that hasn't been upgraded, sufficiently, in years. Many people have technology in their cars with GPS systems that are more sophisticated than some of what the FAA is using.

We need a wholesale review of the air-travel experience, of the FAA technology, and we're going - we have to bite the bullet; make the billions of dollars investments that are necessary in order to build an experience that's reliable, an experience people can count on, an experience that will encourage people to travel. You know, especially coming out of the pandemic, we want people going from Point A to Point B. How do we encourage them to do that?

SUMMERS: Sure. So it's a new season of divided government on Capitol Hill. So I'm curious what the outlook there looks like to you. Do you get the sense that there is appetite in Congress to spend that level of money when it comes time to reauthorize the FAA budget?

FREEMAN: You know, it might surprise people, but we're actually optimistic here. These issues are not partisan issues. These are issues that federal policymakers experience every week traveling home to their districts. They know the air-travel system is not what it needs to be. I think what they need to know, though, is the traveling public isn't going to tolerate this. You know, it doesn't have to be this way. And the more the traveling public is sending that message, the better off we'll be.

SUMMERS: The FAA does not have a permanent head administrator. The Senate has not held a confirmation hearing for the Biden administration's nominee. Would a confirmed, permanent head help these types of issues from occurring?

FREEMAN: Well, it gets to the broader issue. We haven't appointed a head of the FAA. We haven't replaced thousands of air traffic controllers. We're down on the number of pilots we have. We need a holistic review. Getting a head of the FAA is the first step.

But this is going to be a multi-year investment in improving the air-travel experience. I think we have to understand, we have to embrace, there are economic consequences to not building this system, to not making it reliable. Today, the costs of today for American businesses, is substantial. We're confronting this day in and day out. Are we ready to take this system seriously? Are we ready to make the investments that are necessary?

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association. Geoff, thank you for being here.

FREEMAN: Thank you for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
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