On this trip, his fans will witness Schlappig's latest mission: a weekend jaunt that will slingshoot him across East Asia — Hong Kong, Jakarta, Tokyo — and back to New York, in 69 hours. He'll rarely leave the airports, and when he does he'll rest his head only in luxury hotels. ... Schlappig, 25, is one of the biggest stars among an elite group of obsessive flyers whose mission is to outwit the airlines. They're self-styled competitors with a singular objective: fly for free, as much as they can, without getting caught. ... "An airplane is my bedroom," he says, stretching to reach his complimentary slippers. "It's my office, and it's my playroom." The privilege of reclining in this personal suite costs around $15,000. Schlappig typically makes this trip when he's bored on the weekend. He pays for it like he pays for everything: with a sliver of his gargantuan cache of frequent-flyer miles that grows only bigger by the day.
The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather. ... It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way. ... While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025. ... The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system. ... Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper. ... What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.