President Trump announced this week he wants to privatize the FAA’s air traffic control operations, in part to speed up modernization.
“After billions and billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays,” he said, “we are still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”
Trump is endorsing a decades-old idea, spearheaded these days by House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster. The idea is to shift air traffic control away from the FAA into a non-profit corporation, supported by fees. Advocates say a corporation is more agile and better suited to complete the switch to modern technology. Most major airlines are on board.
But among small airplane owners and the general aviation industry, skepticism abounds.
“We need to do things different. There’s no argument there,” Adam White, government liaison for the Alaska Airmen Association, said in an interview. “I’m just a little concerned that general aviation is going to be boxed out of the decision-making process.”
White, who lives in Nenana and is a flying pastor, says the U.S. has a good air traffic system that is modernizing, but slowly. White says some of the delay may be good.
“It’s not something that you can implement and if it doesn’t work we can come back six months later and look at it,” he said. “It’s got to work, or people are going to die.”
Many non-airline aviators worry about the user fees the self-financed corporation is expected to impose. White wonders if fees might extend to pre-flight weather briefings and other services that enhance safety.
“Our concern is if folks have to pay to be able to do that, they’re not going to avail themselves of those services as freely as they do today,” he said.
General aviation now pays at the pump, through a tax of 19.4 cents per gallon on aviation gas.
Under several Republican plans, the board controlling air-traffic operations would have seats for various stakeholders, like the airlines, the pilots’ union and recreational pilots. Still, people in general aviation say their voices could be drowned out.
Mark Baker is the president of the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, which has 300,000 members, 3,000 in Alaska.
“We don’t register any complaints about the current system,” he said.
Baker says the reports he sees show most airline delays are due to weather and problems other than traffic control.
Among the satisfied general aviators is Joe Brown, who runs an Ohio-based propeller company.
“When I fly, I find a modern system, a high-functioning system,” he said last month, testifying against privatization at a House hearing. He paints a far different picture from the antiquated control technology the president spoke of.
“I can file a flight plan from my smart phone and get my proposed route back before I get to the airport in a text. When I take off I have GPS navigation systems on board that allow me to fly point-to-point, all over this country.”
Brown says he’s happy that enhanced technology guides him on precision approaches at hundreds of airports. About 40 of them are in Alaska.
Alaska Congressman Don Young said at last month’s hearing the privatization initiative seems to be trying to reform the best part of the FAA, though he’s not necessarily opposed.
“As long as Alaska is taken care of, and the need for general aviation, and not being run by the larger airlines, I’ll be somewhat interested in what we’re doing.”
One of the arguments for privatization is it would allow a steady funding source, removed from the budget uncertainties of Congress.
President Trump signed a memo and letter outlining his privatization plans Monday, at a White House ceremony. It looked like a bill signing, but the documents have no legal impact. The plan still has substantial opposition in Congress.