Most Americans probably know very little about the air traffic control systems that guide both commercial and general aviation across the United States.
But the debate emerging this year is going to bring that whole issue into the spotlight, and there are both safety and economic issues to consider.
Currently, the American air traffic control system, which is the busiest in the world, is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. But some lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Transportation committee Rep. Bill Shuster, are proposing privatizing the ATC system as a part of the reauthorization of the FAA, which Congress considers every few years.
The FAA air traffic system is considered the safest in the world, but not necessarily efficient or cost effective. The Pennsylvania Republican contends that the FAA system is working with outdated technology and government red tape, and that a privately run system would maintain safety, reduce delays and cut costs. He also notes that many other countries already have made this move.
But even before the actual proposals have been unveiled, the idea is raising a storm of opposition, particularly from the general aviation community. That includes private planes, as well as all the enterprises large and small that use planes as a part of their business.
Their concerns are that a non-profit created to operate the air traffic control system would be dominated by the interests of the large commercial airlines. The ATC system controls what planes fly, when and where, in the many air spaces across the nation.
Would a private system put general aviation at a logistical and financial disadvantage ultimately making it more difficult and expensive for local businesses and agencies to use their planes? That is a big question, and one that smaller communities and more rural states such as West Virginia and Kentucky have a big stake in.
There are about 5,000 airports in the United States, but only about 500 have regular commercial service. The rest serve general aviation, and provide smaller communities with much more than just flying for fun.
These airports support a range of critical services from transporting medical patients and the nation’s blood supply to firefighting and emergency response. But just as importantly, they serve businesses that depend on non-commercial airport travel to compete in a global economy. It is worth noting, that the organizations that represent both these airports and the businesses that use them have been among the first to raise concerns and questions about privatizing the ATC system.
Even smaller airports such as Tri-State in our area that have commercial service, also depend greatly on general aviation for revenue.
So, for a number of reasons, Congress needs to take a slow and thorough approach to considering these proposals, and it seems unrealistic to think that can done in time for the reauthorization of the FAA this year.
When and if changes are made, lawmakers have to make sure they consider the importance of air space access for small towns and rural areas and avoid creating yet another economic divide for the millions of people who outside of the nation’s major metro areas.