Here in North Dakota, simply traveling from town to town is very time-consuming. Distances are long here, and while those long stretches of highway provide plenty of business for my paving company, it also means managing different jobsites is time-consuming. On top of that, we have a short work season and work throughout the region, on jobs in North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota, which adds even greater distance.
Fortunately, my company has its own aircraft, a Cessna 206, that makes getting to multiple places quickly a lot easier. At least once a week, sometimes more, I fly to our jobsites to meet with engineers, inspect progress, bring critical parts that would otherwise hold up work, or bid on new projects.
Recently, after being hit by lightning, our asphalt plant in Redshirt, S.D., near the Black Hills, was out of commission. I flew to the plant through the night with our mechanic (and his specialized tools and parts) in order to minimize plant down-time in the morning. The unmatched versatility of general aviation allowed us to get the plant operational without losing the next workday.
I am not alone. General aviation in North Dakota alone represents $856 million in total economic output, and airports in the state support more than 12,000 jobs. It also makes a considerable difference in the lives and communities of North Dakota. I volunteer with Angel Flight, which provides flights to patients to receive specialized medical care in other regions of the country at no cost. I also volunteer with LightHawk, which lends aerial support to conservation efforts. During the 2014 saltwater pipeline spill near Bear Den Bay, I took a student from the University of North Dakota to document the extent of damage, particularly to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes (MHA Nation).
But on the other side of the country “inside the beltway,” some interests are now pressuring Congress to privatize the air traffic control system. They’ve proposed removing congressional oversight of our aviation system and giving control to a private board. While this all sounds good and well enough, the biggest commercial interests — the same ones that have already cut service to towns by 20 percent — would be running our air traffic control system. You can imagine where this will leave small businesses, airports and rural communities — last.
We should be investing in our communities and small businesses, and we should all be investing more in our national aviation infrastructure. Let’s ensure that our aviation system continues to serve communities of all sizes, not big commercial interests.
Dan Thompson is the President of Border States Paving and a member of the Alliance for Aviation Across America.