Mayors from small and midsize cities across Minnesota and the country are concerned about efforts to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, a move they fear would harm rural airports and communities.
More than 100 mayors from all 50 states, including mayors in Winona, Albert Lea, Ely and New Ulm, sent a letter Monday to the U.S. House and Senate transportation committees, opposing renewed efforts to put the system in the hands of business.
These mayors worry that would give commercial airlines an outsized role in governing the system and could lead to a loss of air service, loss of federal “critical airport” designations, higher fees and financial infeasibility.
A major fear is that if private companies have a bigger role in operating the system, they will likely not see profit at smaller airports and services could be reduced and fees increased.
Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said small and mid-size airports depend on federal funding that comes through the FAA to provide essential services to the region.
“When the government is involved, it’s for essential services. When the private sector is involved, it’s for profit motivation. The reason the federal government regulates and the FAA is involved is to ensure the public essential nature of air service is protected at the airport level,” Hentges said.
He said he’s always open to more efficient ways to do things but is skeptical a private company would accept running smaller airports more efficiently while still protecting the services essential to the local area.
The Mankato Regional Airport is busy because of a growing number of mostly business-related flights taking off and landing and because the airport serves as the base for Minnesota State University’s aviation program, the only one in the state.
“Those are two important aspects that make our airport essential. Do those get lost in a private business model?” Hentges said.
Rural air strips are used for general aviation, which is the industry term for all civil aviation other than commercial flights. These smaller airports often serve aircraft used for medical emergencies, fighting wildfires, transferring organs for transplants, monitoring power lines and training pilots.
Minnesota has 135 airports that employ 26,000 people. General aviation in the state contributes about $5.3 billion in economic benefit, said a 2013 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“Currently, thousands of airports around the country are designated as critical to our national air transportation system by the FAA and thus are eligible for federal funding,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of Alliance for Aviation Across America, which organized the letter. “If you put this network under the purview of a private board that is accountable to private commercial interests, that gives us grave concern.”
Governance of the nation’s airways is a perennial debate in Washington, D.C., but the thrum recently has grown louder. Airlines For America, the lobbying group for the majority of U.S. commercial carriers, is making a hard push for privatizing air traffic control and the Trump administration has signaled its support for an overhaul.
Opponents come from both political parties. The Senate appropriations committee, led by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, sent a letter to the chamber’s committee on commerce, science and transportation, opposing the privatizing effort.
Proponents said a quasi-governmental, public-private entity — like Amtrak or Fannie Mae — would be nimbler and quicker to implement the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization efforts, called NextGen, a program rollout plagued by delays. Airlines and other advocates argue that removing it from congressional oversight would stabilize its funding.
The appropriations committee took issue with that. Although funding for the FAA, like other federal agencies, must be reauthorized by Congress every few years, “assertions of a lack of stable funding for the FAA are simply inaccurate,” the committee wrote in a letter Feb. 28. “In fact, the Appropriations Committee has protected and prioritized funding for the Air Traffic Organization by providing more than 99 percent of the administration’s budget request since 2008.”
Proponents point to Canada and the United Kingdom as examples of how to privatize. These systems rely more heavily on user fees, which opponents said drives up the cost to fly. Opponents like to remind them that the United Kingdom had to bail out its private air traffic control entity following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Privatization worries George Bolon, the fixed-based operator at the Winona Airport, who supports his mayor for signing the letter.
“You will increase the cost for the light, general aviation pilot,” Bolon said. “You will increase the cost for training schools. You will significantly reduce the safety factor, in my estimation.”
Safety will be compromised, Bolon believes, because higher costs may encourage some pilots to “risk it” and fly “under the radar” without letting Air Traffic Control know their flight plans.
“If people become economically driven, they often miss the safety factor,” Bolon said. “Saving one person is worth a lot of money. The system currently is able to do this.”
Delta Air Lines is an exception among the major commercial carriers in its opposition to privatization. The Atlanta-based airline and largest operator at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, split from the airline industry trade group over the issue.
Richard Anderson, then-CEO of Delta, was a vocal critic of efforts to privatize air traffic control. Delta pulled its membership from Airlines For America and wrote several opinion pieces in newspapers, saying it believed privatization would escalate costs for the airlines and, ultimately, for passengers.
In a paper outlining its opposition, Delta said, “General aviation flights typically use more monetary resources than they give back.” If the system is turned into a revenue-based system, air traffic control resources likely would be prioritized at the larger hub airports rather than spread across the country, Delta argued.
The FAA manages a network of more than 13,500 airports across the U.S., according to the CIA World Factbook. The next largest network is the entire European Union with about 3,100 airports. The federal agency gives airport improvement grants to large and small airports.
Hub airports rely on nearby general aviation airports when, for example, flights may not be able to land because of bad weather. Winona Airport has a $12.5 million project underway to improve safety. About 90 percent was funded by the FAA, Bolon said, “and there’s no question that money (was generated by) the major hubs.”
Shilad of the Alliance for Aviation said, “In a private system, the board could direct all of the investments to whatever airports they wanted. In many cases, some smaller airports couldn’t survive.”