Most Americans have long forgotten that the roads we all take for granted have a rich history that reverberates even today in the current budget debacle and fight over sequestration. We equally give little thought to the extensive and complex air control systems that allow for tens of thousands of departures and arrivals daily. Nor do most of us realize how in forgetting our transportation history we are in danger of eroding our personal freedoms and our constitutional rights to privacy. To understand the seemingly odd connection between highways, flyways and a threat to privacy, we need to review (mercifully briefly) the history of how we got here today.
This story does not begin with Eisenhower. As far back as 1815, a national road was built between Cumberland, Maryland and St. Louis, which at the time was both the most ambitious road project in the United States and the pathway for immigration to the west. To put this in a timeline perspective, Congress approved construction in 1811, but work did not begin until 1815 because of the intervening War of 1812. The road was built, but eventually fell into disrepair. Many sections were abandoned, as were any lingering thoughts of a comprehensive national highway system.
That is, until a second more ambitious attempt to create a national system of roads began with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938. The original idea was to create toll rolls to support construction and maintenance of a triplet of super east-west and north-south highways. But the Bureau of Public Roads eventually concluded the system could not be self-sustaining; so they suggested instead building a network of public roads totaling about 27,000 miles.
Building on those ideas, Congress passed a revised Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which for the first time contemplated the creation of a true “National System of Interstate Highways” extending to 40,000 miles. But in the absence of any specific routes to build, little progress was made.
Now enter Eisenhower. Upon becoming president, Ike knew firsthand the strategic importance of improving roads. As a lieutenant colonel in the army in 1919, he was on the first motorized military convoy from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. The trip took nearly two months, and extracted casualties that included 21 men and nine vehicles. This deficit in transportation infrastructure was more striking to Eisenhower than most because he saw during WWII the military advantages of the autobahn in Germany.
With that motivation, Ike pushed for the next iteration of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954. The original act optimistically set aside $175 million for the project. Soon that become obviously and woefully inadequate to the task, and Eisenhower pushed in 1956 for an expanded budget of $25 billion, of which 90 percent would come from the federal government. That is $215 billion in today’s dollars. At the time, the U.S. debt was $273 billion, which today would be about $2.3 trillion. What we bought for that money, during a time of deep debt following world war, was a system that now boasts about 47,000 miles of road, not far from what was imagined in 1944.
National Air Traffic Control System
Think of our airways as a system of national highways in the sky. In fact, the history of building the aviation infrastructure in the United States finds many parallels with its terrestrial counterpart. In 1930, Cleveland opened the country’s first radio-equipped control room; by 1932 the Commerce Department had installed a national array of 83 radio beacons to guide pilots on transcontinental flights. Soon after, advances in two-way radios allowed controllers on the ground to communicate with pilots, and air traffic control towers started popping up all over the country. By 1936 the Commerce Department had three operational Air Route Traffic Control Centers in Newark, Cleveland and Chicago. But with increased commercial air traffic, even that soon proved to be inadequate.
In 1938, Congress passed legislation to create the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), putting under one roof the growing body of federal aviation regulations. Just before WWII, the CAA had its authority expanded beyond just airways to include departures and landings, which finally united control towers and enroute traffic control centers into an integrated whole.
WWII then brought radar to aviation traffic control, the next big technological advance. Following the first installation in 1946, almost all departure and approach control used radar, but the systems did not extend much beyond airport boundaries. That changed in 1956, when two airplanes collided over the Grand Canyon. Congress funded a $250 million effort to upgrade the national airway system to include advanced radar coverage. That crash also motivated Congress to pass in 1958 the Federal Aviation Act creating the Federal Aviation Agency, which evolved into the now-familiar Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That set the stage for everything we see and take for granted today, as new technologies with transponders, computers, GPS and glass cockpits integrated with ground control improved the safety and capacity of the system. The FAA now safely moves 70,000 flights per day.
Eye in the Sky: Gird Your Loins and Cover Them Too
Federal money built and continues to support our transportation infrastructure in the air and on the ground. So what if I suggested to you the following rather absurd idea: because these are public throughways supported with taxpayer dollars, every car and truck in the country must install a GPS to allow the government to track every vehicle driving on an interstate. Furthermore, the government will publish the tracking data in real time so that anybody can see where every car, your car, is driving at all times. The data will also be stored so anybody can see a complete history of your driving record. Your spouse can track your car going to work; your friends and co-workers can see where you’ve gone on vacation. Advertisers can know what stores you drive to. Your enemies can know where you are at all times. Crazy, right? Completely insane.
And yet this is precisely what the government does with airplanes flying between any two airports — all airplanes, small, big, commercial and private. Just as you would object to the crazy program of publishing a tracking record of your car for all to see, individuals and small business owners of airplanes object equally to publishing a record of their flights, for exactly the same reasons.
If you harbor the idea that this issue does not matter to you because you do not own a private airplane, I have one word for you: drones. If you do not fight for others to keep their right to privacy, you could be next to lose yours. Consider the potential for invasive abuse by drones ranging in size from high-flying full size aircraft to insect-size prototypes now in laboratories looking down into your back yard. Giving up the precious right of privacy is a steep and slippery slope. Give away one right and the next is not far behind. So read on. This issue matters to you whether you own an airplane or not.
To stop the outrageous practice of publishing for all to see every flight of every airplane, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) lobbied for a program, which they ran for the FAA, allowing aircraft owners to opt out of public tracking. The FAA still tracked all flights of course, but removed the exempted flights from the database released to the public.
But this caused a public furor, and the program ended after a short time. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies explained the objection thus: use of airspace is public information because taxpayers fund air-traffic controllers, radar and runways. Collins said, “It belongs to all of us. It is not a private preserve.”
Okay, let’s take that same logic and apply it to our highways:
Use of interstate highways is public information because taxpayers fund road construction, bridge building and highway maintenance. “It belongs to all of us. It is not a private preserve.” So if Collins’s logic is correct, we either must install those GPS units on every car and truck and start publishing their tracking records; or stop the madness and stop publishing the tracking records of airplane owners who wish to keep such information from the public. You can’t have it both ways — look at the history of highways and flyways — you can’t claim the mantle of taxpayer privilege for one and not the other. The fact of taxpayer funding does not result in a de-facto loss of all rights to privacy, on the ground or in the air.
Flying is not the domain of rich celebrities flying their Gulfstreams to opening night, even if that gets all the press. General aviation (GA) is the lifeblood of our economy. Here is just a small sample of what owners of small airplanes do for us:
•After the Haiti earthquake, more than 40 percent of all relief flights were GA. In addition, GA flights were able to get into small airports, grass strips and even roads, which were inaccessible to larger airplanes.
•The United States has more than 230,000 private airplanes that operate out of 20,000 public- and private-use airports. Compare that to the 565 large airports available to the airlines. To put this in perspective, small airplanes fly 166 million passengers every year, making GA effectively the nation’s largest airline.
• Then take those facts and consider where American businesses would be if GA were not available to transport people and goods to every corner of the country. Community airfields provide local access to the entire country: “a mile of highway gets you one mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere.”
• Small aircraft are used by farmers and ranchers to such an extent that without GA crop yields would drop 50 percent or more. And without GA, high value crops would not be brought to market except to a narrow geographic range around the producing farm.
• Without GA we would not have Medevac flights, volunteer transportation for cancer and burn victims. Organ transplants would be virtually impossible without GA, which is used to transport recently harvested organs to patients around the country in most need.
• Our entire power grid would never be built, and would collapse today, without GA. Power lines and transmission towers are built using helicopters, and airplanes are used to constantly monitor the multiple thousands of miles of power lines.
Sure, some rich people own big airplanes and fly them to exotic locales. But that is not the core of GA, nor does that give us an excuse to invade the privacy of every airplane owner. Forget the class warfare angle – this is strictly a matter of privacy invasion at a grand scale. Individuals and small businesses moving by air have the same right to privacy that you do when driving your car.
Fiscal Sanity and Responsibility
Potentially lost in the privacy debacle is another important issue associated with our transportation history that warrants further mention here: the balance between spending for upkeep and expansion and our rapidly growing public debt. Due to sequestration, the FAA will close 149 control towers in April. This is a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Commercial aviation contributes $1.3 trillion to the economy, and comprises 5.2 percent of our GDP. Aviation supports more than 10 million jobs with total earnings of $394 billion.
Cutting aviation services to reduce our debt makes little sense in current context or from a historic perspective. In 1946, the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio was 122 percent. In 2011, that figure was about 100 percent, which puts into some perspective the hysteria over the current fiscal problems we face. Yes, we absolutely must get debt under control; but we must also take a deep breath and look at our history to understand our current predicament. The greatest generation had no problem with deficit spending during and after the war to grow the economy. As we extract ourselves from more than a decade of war and trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, we face a period in our fiscal history analogous to the end of the WWII. The fundamentals of what Eisenhower knew in 1956 remain true today. As our bridges collapse and roads crumble, as we absurdly close control towers, we should learn from the past and invest in our future. And in doing so, we should never yield an inch in protecting our right to privacy.
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