Fifteen years ago, a flight between Boston and La Guardia Airport in New York City took 45 minutes; today it’s an hour and 20 minutes. 

“That’s insane,” said Peter Cerda, senior vice president for the Americas at the International Air Transport Association, based in Montreal. “It’s because the air traffic is so saturated that you need these buffers for security, ground delays. The aviation industry is a billion-dollar indsutry, and we can’t get governments around the world to recognize that we need to get to the next level.”

Mr. Cerda was a panelist on a seminar on “Integration and Interoperability: Fly Smarter, Fly Cleaner, Fly Safer” at the national convention of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Atlanta last week. 

The panelists agreed that among the challenges facing the industry are air space management, fuel costs and availability, operational integration and geopolitical disruptions. There was also consensus that progress was being made in technology, the reduction of CO2 emissions and the development of sustainable fuels.

In 2030 there will be 5.9 billion aircraft passengers and 45,000 airplanes in service as opposed to the current 3.3 billion and 24,000, respectively, he said. In addition, there will be 48 million aircraft movements versus the 26 million in 2014. 

Even with the effective doubling of aircraft movements in a relatively short time, regulatory inertia and budgetary constraints have made governments in the U.S. and Europe have been extremely slow to respond with so-called “next-generation” air traffic control systems, which use satellite instead of radar and are widely praised for offering a wide array of benefits. 

“If we do not implement the next-generation initiatives now as well as implement a single European sky, we will not be able to fly more efficiency, smarter, cleaner, and our skies will not be as safe,” Mr. Cerda said.

He called on governments around the world to “wake up” and understand that air transport is like the “bus system, the rail system. It is an integral part of our global economy.”

Allan McArtor, chairman and CEO of the Americas operation of Airbus Group, which is headquartered in Blagnac, France, agreed that the world’s governments, among other entities, are moving much too slowly. 

“We’re making reasonable progress, but why is it taking so long? Do we need a threat of an international trade war to finally engage?”

Mr. McArtor cited the fact that almost 20 years after talks started to unite the air traffic systems of the various countries of the European Union into one system, it has not materialized. 

He didn’t reserve the frustration just for Europe. 

“Why is it so difficult for the (Federal Aviation Administration) to manage ERAM? We’re about four years late and $500 million in the hole,” Mr. McArtor said. 

ERAM stands for En Route Automation Modernization, which is to eventually replace the 40-year-old computer system used by controllers to tracks planes in flight. The new technology would allow them to share and view information more efficiently and to track 1,900 planes at once instead of the current 1,100. 

The FAA hints at the reason behind the delay on its website: Installing ERAM amounts to transplanting the heart of the current system while keeping the rest of it safe and secure, it said. 

Tony Ng, Lockeed Martin Fellow at Lockheed-Martin Corp., said that 16 airports have deployed ERAM with four more to go. 

“There’s no looking back,” he said. “We will have the data to link coverage and realize a plane’s trajectory. We need more flight data sharing.”

In terms of moving the industry to the next level, Mr. McArtor said that there are lots of incentives not to change — both in the public and private sectors. But governments should set timelines for compliance, “or else.” 

“Where is Ronald Reagan when you need him? We’re talking about stewardship versus leadership,” he said. 

In this environment, the aviation industry must be more vocal about both its needs and its importance to the global economy. 

Steve Kong, business and technical development manager at Inmarsat Aviation, based in London, said the technology is confusing and government leaders need a lot of handholding. 

After the Air France crash in off South America in 2009, where it took two years to find the black box, changes were made to improve the tracking of airplanes, he said. 

Even newer technology is available that tracks planes quicker over vast amounts of water, but it hasn’t been widely implemented. 

“And then we had Malaysia Airlines incident,” he said. “But no one said we needed to implement it immediately.”

Mr. Cerda pointed out the aviation and government officials in the trade-oriented economies of Singapore and the Middle East “get it.” 

“Knowing how important the aviation industry is, they work together to have the best customer service airports, the latest technology, regulations that are tough but fair,” he said. “If we could get the support from our government, it would be a game changer.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...