Fred Pace The Herald-Dispatch
Officials Oppose Privatizing Air Traffic Control System
March 9, 2017
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  • HUNTINGTON – Huntington Mayor Steve Williams says local airports and general aviation represent a vital connection for small businesses, farms, emergency responders and other critical services. That’s why he is concerned about a possible move that could affect Huntington’s airport as well as others across the country.

    On Monday, the Alliance for Aviation Across America released a letter to Congress from more than 115 mayors in all 50 states expressing concern about the impact of air traffic control privatization on communities across the country, especially those in rural regions of the country. Williams was one of the mayors to sign the letter.

    “As the mayor of a community that relies heavily on general aviation and our local airport, I understand firsthand the importance of reliable air service to our region’s economic growth and access to critical services,” Williams said. “Placing the air traffic control system under the control of a private entity could jeopardize that.”

    Tri-State Airport Director Jerry Brienza says there is no evidence supporting the contention that privatizing the current air traffic control system would save money or improve safety.

    “Both the Tri-State Airport and the West Virginia Airport Managers Association strongly oppose the implementation of a private system managed mostly by major airlines and with little or no congressional oversight,” Brienza said. “As major airlines continue to make unheard-of-before profits, medium and small airports are continually losing commercial air service. Access to rural communities is in danger already, and having airline control over ATC would not be beneficial to these regions. Corporate and general aviation users would be forced to pay user fees to pay for said services and would ultimately choose other forms of transportation for their travel needs.”

    Devin Osting, with the Alliance for Aviation Across America, agrees with Brienza that the proposal to privatize the air traffic control system is being pushed by the big, commercial airlines.

    Those airlines have complained that the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to modernize the air traffic control system and that privatizing it would speed that process along and make the nation’s air traffic system work more efficiently. President Donald Trump is supportive of privatizing the system, according to airline executives who met with him recently to promote the idea.

    But critics of the proposal disagree.

    “This would put this system under the purview of a private board of mostly commercial interests, which would direct everything from taxes and fees to airport investments and access,” Alliance for Aviation Across America said in a prepared statement.

    Osting said this group of over 100 mayors is only the latest in a growing number of voices raising concerns about the proposal to privatize the air traffic control system.

    “Consumer advocates, free market groups, major committees in Congress, chambers of commerce and businesses have all voiced concerns about this proposal,” he said. “In addition, the American people disapprove of this idea by an overwhelming 62 percent.”

    As Congress debates reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the letter asks them to reject any risky plans to privatize the federal air traffic control system and take away congressional oversight of this public system.

    “Over the last year, proposals have recently been forwarded to put this vital infrastructure under the control of a private entity dominated by the commercial airlines,” according to the letter sent by the mayors. “On behalf of the tens of thousands of communities around the country, we are concerned about the very real and dire ramifications of eliminating congressional oversight of this public air transportation infrastructure.

    “For tens of thousands of communities such as ours around the country, we depend on our local airport and all sectors of transportation to reach far-off markets and access critical services such as law enforcement, disaster relief and medical care. Small aircraft and airports are utilized on a daily basis to help transport blood and organs to residents in rural communities, reunite veterans back from overseas with their families, maintain power lines and help our companies reach customers in far-off markets, among many other priorities,” the letter went on to say. “Privatization would hand over decisions about infrastructure funding, taxes and fees, consumer complaints, noise and many other priorities to a board of private interests dominated by the commercial airlines. These are the same airlines that have cut back flights to smaller communities by more than 20 percent in recent years, and have stated their intent to divert investment from small and mid-sized communities to large ones where the airlines are most profitable.”

    The mayors said in the letter that they are also concerned about costs and access.

    “For example, the Canadian, privatized system, which is often held up as the system the U.S. should emulate, is more expensive than the system we have in the U.S. by miles flown,” the letter said. “In the U.K., that system has seen more delays, higher fares and reduced connectivity at London’s airports since privatization. So while we all agree that modernizing our air traffic control system and investing in American infrastructure should be among our highest priorities, privatization is not the answer.”

    Recently, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as well as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., also sent a letter to the leadership of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation opposing privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system.

    “The public would not be well-served by exempting any part of the FAA from annual congressional oversight. A privatized system would provide consumers with no recourse for complaints or mistreatment, as it currently does through the Department of Transportation or their members of Congress,” according to the letter. “The annual appropriations process provides the oversight of agency resources necessary to ensure accountability for program performance and a sustained focus on aviation safety.”

    In addition, the letter states, ”annual oversight also ensures that the FAA maintains a system that works throughout the aviation industry, including for general aviation, small and rural communities, commercial airlines and large metropolitan cities.”

    Follow reporter Fred Pace at and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.