(Following the previous thousand blooming flowers, here.)
I hear via my aviation grapevine that my colleague Andrew Sullivan is making fun of Newt Gingrich in general, and in specific for this idea about modernizing the US air-traffic control system:
[Newt says:] "One of the projects I'm going to launch -- we don't have a name for it yet -- is an air-traffic modernization project... You can do a space-based air-traffic-control system with half the current number of air-traffic controllers, increase the amount of air traffic in the northeast by 40 percent, allow point-to-point flights without the controllers having to have highways in the sky, and reduce the amount of aviation fuel by 10 percent."
[Andrew asks:] Why would I be even more terrified to get on a plane after that "reform"?
As for making fun of Newt in general, have at it! But on this idea, he turns out to be saying something smart.
To play the role of Mr. Gradgrind for a moment, if you're terrified getting on a plane, it has to be for reasons beyond the realm of the statistical or the "reality-based," since on average this is about the safest way you can spend your time. Often entire years pass without a single death from a crash on US airlines - something that can't be said of riding in a car, walking down the street, taking a bath, lying in your own bed, etc. Yes, when things go wrong, they're grisly, but traffic deaths, random murders, bathtub drownings, etc are also bad ways to go. (And yes, yes, I realize that Andrew is exaggerating for effect.)
Still, there are risks both real and perceived in flying. The system Gingrich is talking about is designed to reduce at least the real ones.
What he has in mind is no doubt a variant of what is called "NextGen," for Next Generation Transportation. It involves a satellite-based navigation system (think: GPS) called ADS-B. Not everyone agrees on every detail of these new systems. But the approach as a whole constitutes a mature, vetted, sensible, picked-over-for-years proposal that has most everything going for it except the long, slow process of getting it accepted and implemented. I described its potential back in 2001 in this Atlantic cover story and the related book Free Flight. More available here, here, here, and here.
As for why this system is more modern: Today's air traffic control system is essentially like a telephone network in which you must ring up a central switchboard and ask an operator's help in placing each call. The new system would allow a lot more automated routing - with less needless, switchboard-operator-type human intervention but (as with anything in aviation) human and automated safety measures piled on triple-depth.
As for why it could be more efficient and ultimately safer: Today's system funnels a great deal of traffic through a small number of specified routes - which therefore become the only crowded places in the sky. A newer system would allow more planes to take a variety of courses, staying out of each other's way. (It doesn't solve the problem of too many airplanes wanting to land at the same few over-crowded airports, but as a side effect it is designed to make smaller, under-used airports more attractive and practical.) In a sense it's like the difference between cars, which can take a variety of routes through town, and trolleys, which go where the tracks are laid and nowhere else. I am oversimplifying, but there actually is something to Gingrich's plan. It's part of what is good about him, not what's bad.
Should this be the basis of the GOP's new program? They could do a lot worse -- and, as I'm sure Andrew agrees, they probably will.