Written by Ben Sclair
Shea has lived many lives in aviation. Among his titles are chief of the California Division of Aeronautics, director of aviation for the Port of Portland in Oregon, founding director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Institute, chair of the Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota, and FAA Associate Administrator.
He’s also a musician, artist, and National Aeronautic Association speed record holder.
And every so often, Bill mails me a letter. The envelope, most times, includes a bit of aviation art. I imagine he does this for both my amusement, as well as the letter carriers who will encounter it along its journey from California to Washington.
You see, Bill is always thinking about aviation. Not just morning pancake breakfast runs, but big, global aviation thinking.
For many years, Bill’s letters have included the idea of a National Aviation Commission. And I’ll be honest, since the majority of Bill’s ideas have focused on the international airline segment of aviation, I’ve had a hard time connecting the dots.
And then, the December 2019 issue of Seattle Business hit my mailbox. Inside was a feature titled “Turbulence Over Sea-Tac.” The story outlines the challenges — and opportunities — at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Just three paragraphs into the story, “At about 2,500 acres, Sea-Tac’s footprint is among the smallest of any major airport in the nation. Its three runways are never in use at the same time because of restricted airspace. More than 17% of flights through August of this year  departed more than 15 minutes late, federal data shows.”
Sea-Tac is the epitome of stuffing 10 gallons of stuff into a 5-gallon bucket.
So full is Sea-Tac’s bucket that the state Legislature in 2019 “passed a law mandating a search for a new airport site outside King County — either expanding existing facilities or developing a new one.”
And that’s when the lines connecting the dots started to form a picture. OK, I can be slow on the uptake.
I forwarded a link to the article to Bill. In typical fashion (which is high energy, all the time), Bill sent me another letter with updated thinking about the National Aviation Commission (NAC).
We need a NAC
So what is the NAC? Bill proposes a new, stand-alone, five-member commission that will “report directly to the president and will be accountable for U.S. strategic aviation planning, policy, vision, and promote U.S. aviation around the world.”
A reformed FAA will be moved from U.S. Department of Transportation oversight to the new NAC, Bill suggests.
“U.S. DOT is too busy with surface mode transportation,” he says.
Meanwhile, airports of all sizes in the U.S. continue to become something other than airports at a faster rate than other things become airports, he points out.
Meigs in Chicago is a rather famous example. Santa Monica is the current famous example. Balancing local rights with national needs will always be tough, Bill says, noting a NAC could’ve been useful in these two extreme cases.
Growth and Gridlock
“Airport gridlock and congestion will worsen in the U.S. unless four new international airports are built to accommodate future demand,” states Bill.
A CNN Travel story from September 2019 lists Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the busiest in 2018 with 107.4 million passengers. Beijing Capital International Airport in China was second with 101 million passengers. Los Angeles, Chicago’s O’Hare, and Dallas/Fort Worth were the only other U.S. airports that made the top 20 busiest airports. Tellingly, “As many as a dozen of the world’s top 30 fastest-growing airports are located in China or India.”
And new commercial airports are opening around the world, especially in Asia and India.
I imagine this international aviation growth has a great deal to do with economic growth in developing parts of the world. It just appears that the rest of the world has the intestinal fortitude to make the hard decisions to take advantage of that global economic growth.
“Critical airport congestion areas are in the Northeast, Chicago area, and the west coast, mega-populated states,” writes Bill. “Pouring millions of dollars into existing airports helps, however new airports are needed if we as a nation want to maintain our present world aviation leadership role. Otherwise mediocrity could result and airport congestion and gridlock will worsen.”
In fact, Bill penned a November 2004 editorial titled, “Without new airport, unfriendly skies for Bay Area,” for the San Francisco Chronicle that said, among other things, “At the three Bay Area terminals, runway availability is limited, and the area can handle only so many flights at any given time. In short, you can’t pour a gallon into a cup.”
Did I mention that Bill has been working this idea for a long time?
Manufacturers – from many to one
“Recall when we had Douglas, Lockheed, Convair, and Boeing building some of the world’s best airliners,” writes Bill.
Today, we have Boeing. And while I believe — and hope — that Boeing will right itself in the face of its current challenges, company officials have a lot on their plate at the moment.
Industry consolidation, especially in hindsight, looks more and more foolish.
“How did Washington, D.C., let this happen? Who was asleep at the switch?” asks Bill.
Where’d they go?
“Mergermania has reduced the number of U.S. legacy carriers to four: American, United, Southwest, and Delta,” continues Bill. “While smaller airlines like JetBlue, Alaska, Frontier, and others fill the gaps, foreign carriers sense some vulnerability in the U.S. market and aim to increase their service in the U.S.”
Don’t forget GA
Lest you think Bill is only focused on Part 121 airline operations, think again.
“General Aviation must be expanded in the U.S.,” writes Bill. “Small airports are critical to the well-being of the country.”
But those are arguments we know well.
Bottom line, we need airports. And the best way to create more airports is with a commission that will be “accountable for U.S. strategic aviation planning, policy, vision and promote U.S. aviation around the world,” as Bill suggests. We need an entity that will help connect the dots.
As Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Maybe, just maybe, the National Aviation Commission is an idea whose time has come.
What say you?
This article was originally published in General Aviation News