Those of us in the airport business take pride in the community and job growth we contribute in good times and bad, so it’s not often we sound the alarm on behalf of more than 400 locally-run economic engines. But sequestration threatens to stall more of our future than many people realize.

Sequestration risks $500 billion in cuts to non-defense federal spending an outcome that is predicted to come down hard on funding for the Next Generation Air Transportation System known as NextGen, and the jobs and economic growth our airports provide.

Airports are largely funded by those who use them, and the vast majority of airport revenues come from fees paid by passengers using the airport, landing fees and space rental fees paid by airlines, parking charges and sales of food and goods at the airport. The federal government is responsible for the air traffic control system used by the airlines to connect airports, including NextGen’s comprehensive overhaul designed to make air travel more dependable, safe and user-friendly.

If sequestration hits NextGen, the result will be a negative chain reaction with far-reaching implications.

Work stops on research, planning and construction, and will lead to ever-increasing delays in NextGen improvements to the nation’s airports and air traffic control system. We could wind up with a capacity-constrained civil aviation system until well into the 2030s.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world continues building air transportation systems that are proven to deliver economic growth, potentially dwarfing the current $1.2 trillion airports generate annually to the U.S. economy.

Navigating in U.S. airspace today is analogous to commuting to and from work using city streets where a flagman is controlling traffic instead of computer-sequenced stoplights to ease the flow of traffic.”

We should not allow America to be left behind as a global economic leader.

A study conducted by Econsult on behalf of an Aerospace Industries Association-led coalition of American businesses, projects that a 30% to 50% reduction in NextGen funding translates into delays that would cost the U.S. economy $40 billion by 2021, soaring to $80 billion by 2035. Job losses would reach 700,000 by 2021, and 1.3 million by 2035.

Why? As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted earlier this year, modernizing the entire U.S. air transportation system from ground-based radar technology to satellite-based surveillance and navigation systems creates interdependencies among many [FAA] acquisition programs, where cost increases or delays in one program can affect the costs and schedules of other programs.

The GAO audit even found that when Congress was gridlocked over funding the Federal Aviation Administration for two weeks in July 2011, the work stoppages that ensued suspended vital airport construction projects nationwide, and created delays across several of NextGen’s 30 major programs.

Make no mistake about the importance of airports and NextGen to our future. Yes, NextGen requires a significant financial investment at a time when many are looking for places to cut government spending. But these costs pale by comparison to the potential financial losses our economy will suffer the longer we delay.

Navigating in U.S. airspace today is analogous to commuting to and from work using city streets where a flagman is controlling traffic instead of computer-sequenced stoplights to ease the flow of traffic. The current inefficiency in our air transportation system is a major contributing factor to common complaints about air travel, including cascading cancellations when bad weather rolls through.

Just one example illustrates this point: Nearly half of all U.S. flight delays occur in the 83-mile corridor from New York to Philadelphia, because any weather or other problem in this congested region can impact a third to three-fourths of all flights on any given day. Such is the density of demand and the constraint of the current, outdated system that manages air traffic.

NextGen will bring 21st century innovations to ensure future capacity, safety and environmental goals are achieved. Portions of NextGen are already in place or being tested at airports around the country, including in New York. As more improvements are implemented, aircraft will be able to fly closer together and runways will be able to accommodate more take-offs and landings while preserving safety.

New airport operations procedures made possible with NextGen will allow airplanes to land during certain weather patterns that are not permitted today. In time, this too will contribute to easing the delays that follow whenever weather conditions deteriorate in busy U.S. airspace.

Clearly, sequestration is a symptom of the larger problem ― the current unpredictable political and funding environment in Washington. The time is now to recognize the risks of continuing business as usual, and start demanding action to restore stability and empower the aviation industry to build for the future.

We call on Congress and the White House to avoid sacrificing airports and NextGen at the altar of sequestration. The best choice in these times is simple: invest where the returns will be multiplied nationwide, over decades of community and business economic expansion.

Greg Principato is president of Airports Council International – North America, which represents local, regional and state governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports in the United States and Canada and more than 350 aviation-related businesses.