An effort to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system worries the people in charge of small, rural airports across the country, including Faribault.
More than 100 mayors from all 50 states, including mayors in Winona, Albert Lea, Ely and New Ulm, sent a letter this week to the U.S. House and Senate transportation committees opposing efforts to put the air traffic control system in the hands of businesses.
Their fear is that commercial airlines could play too much of a 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.
While most rural air strips, like the recently renamed Faribault Municipal Airport – Liz Strohfus Field, are used for general aviation, they also can play vital roles in medical emergencies, fighting wildfires, transferring organs for transplants, monitoring power lines and training pilots.
Faribault Municipal Airport fixed-based operator Jerry Sears did not take a stance either for or against the issue, but he did say that he did not see how airport privatization “could feasibly happen.”
In Faribault, there is no air traffic control tower, as is the case with many small airports. They work using radio calls and follow a general pattern based on the wind.
“With regards to how it affects our traffic, it won’t,” said Sears.
That said, he called the privatization idea “ridiculous” and “preposterous” and said that the airlines and private companies could not handle the task of air traffic control.
“If you really dig into air traffic control, you’ll realize the dangers of not having it controlled by the government,” he said. “The FAA is there for a reason.”
In Mankato, the home to Minnesota State University, Mankato’s aviation program, officials also see problems with taking air traffic control out of the government’s hands.
“When the government is involved, it’s for essential services,” said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges. “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.”
Mankato and Faribault are two of Minnesota’s 135 airports that employ 26,000 people. A 2013 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers said that general aviation in the state of Minnesota contributes about $5.3 billion in economic benefit as well.
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.”
Others fear it could be more widespread.
“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 to Congress. “If you put this network under the purview of a private board that is accountable to private commercial interests, that gives us grave concern.”
The group lobbying for the privatization at the federal level is Airlines for America, which represents the major commercial airlines. Its push for privatizing air traffic control has also been supported by the Trump administration.
Airlines for America argues that this quasi-governmental, public-private entity, similar to the Amtrak model, would be nimbler and quicker to implement the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization efforts, called NextGen.
One airline that is not on-board with Airlines for America is Delta Air Lines. The Atlanta-based airline and the largest operator at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, split from Airlines for America because of this issue.
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.
Managing a network of more than 13,500 airports across the country is a tall task for the FAA. If the smaller airports in that bunch were to lose investment and funding, it could lead to the demise of airports like Faribault’s.
“In a private system, the board could direct all of the investments to whatever airports they wanted,” said Shilad of the Alliance for Aviation. “In many cases, some smaller airports couldn’t survive.”
While Sears said he is not investing too much interest in the “infeasible” issue, he did speculate as to what it would mean for airports like his.
“It’s hard to say how things are going to be affected,” he said. “It’s safe to say that things won’t be good for some of the people involved.”