Regional airports expressed concern Monday that President Donald Trump’s proposal to privatize the country’s air-traffic control system could give airlines too much power and not protect the interests of the recreational and business pilots who use their runways.
“The airlines, which have more money, they can potentially take control,” said Mike Shahan, airport director for Scholes International Airport in Galveston. “And I think it would be to the detriment to general aviation.”
On Monday, Trump proposed creating a nonprofit organization that would be in charge of such operations as maximizing route efficiency, providing timely service and reducing delays. The new group ideally would free the Federal Aviation Administration to focus on safety, and it would be overseen by a board that represents airlines and other aviation stakeholders.
“If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster and safer travel – a future where 20 percent of a ticket price doesn’t go to the government, and where you don’t have to sit on a tarmac or circle for hours and hours over an airport – which is very dangerous also – before you land,” Trump said in his prepared remarks in Washington, D.C.
Privatization has been widely supported by large carriers, including Southwest and United airlines, each of which has a large Houston presence. But opponents are concerned about general aviation fees that have harmed the industry in other countries with air-traffic control systems not run by the government.
A group of general aviation associations co-authored a letter to the president requesting he provide “ample opportunity for all stakeholders and citizens to carefully review, analyze and debate any proposed legislation changing the governance and funding for air traffic control.”
There’s also concern about giving airlines even more control over the skies.
“The industry responsible for massive IT meltdowns, sky-high airline fees and shrinking seats should not be in control of managing the most complex airspace in the world,” U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a news release. “Instead of this ill-advised proposal to turn over this critical aviation safety function to a private entity, the administration should instead come up with real ways to help rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.”
Airport officials in the Houston region were hesitant to give opinions on Trump’s proposal until learning more specifics.
Some agreed to talk about privatization in general.
Houston Executive Airport already has a privately run tower. Executive director Andrew Perry said the tower opened in October 2014 to provide additional safety and prepare the young airport for future growth.
He said he could see a private system being more efficient, but he’s also worried his airport could see fewer takeoffs and landings if the general aviation industry gets saddled with fees.
“Aviation is already expensive,” added Galveston’s Shahan. “Adding another tax of $25, $50, $100 per segment, it would increase the cost dramatically.”
Shahan said additional fees could cause general aviation companies, including air ambulances, flight schools and charters, to lay people off.
For his airport, specifically, Shahan is worried about staffing the control tower. Scholes International Airport is part of the FAA’s Contract Tower Program. The FAA pays for the controllers and the airport pays for the facility.
A privately run organization could decide to end this program, and Shahan said he isn’t sure if Scholes would be able to afford to hire controllers.
“In certain things, privatization is good,” he said. “I don’t think so with air-traffic control services.”
Scott Smith, airport director for the Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport, also is concerned about the Contract Tower Program: Would a privatized system continue this program? Would it charge additional fees? If the program ends, would the state provide grant money?
“My concern about any change in the air-traffic system is what would happen to the contract towers,” he said.
The FAA has its own towers at Bush Intercontinental, Hobby and David Wayne Hooks airports. It also has a radar approach facility, which handles traffic over the greater Houston area, and the Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center, which controls tens of thousands of square miles of airspace over southeast Texas, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Houston Airport System, which operates the city’s two airports with commercial flights, said it was pleased to learn that airports would be represented on the governing board of the nonprofit proposed by the president.
“Airports are tasked with performing at safe and efficient levels daily, and it is vital that airports play a role in supporting and implementing this next important technological step forward,” chief external affairs officer Saba Abashawl said in a news release.
The need to take that next technological step, however, isn’t the source of disagreement. Trump, who called the system “painfully in the past,” isn’t alone in thinking the system needs to be modernized.
The FAA has been addressing this with its NextGen project, which uses GPS technology to enable aircraft to move more directly from Point A to Point B. The infrastructure includes a satellite-based system that will replace radars as the primary means by which air-traffic controllers track and manage aircraft.
“Our nation’s infrastructure in the sky is a vital part of our economy, and the demand for air services in the United States is growing,” Nicholas E. Calio, Airlines for America president and CEO, said in a news release. “The president’s leadership means that we can look forward to legislation that gets government out of the way so we can modernize for the future and maintain our global leadership in aviation.”
Not everyone thinks privatization will be the best way to speed up the NextGen rollout.
“I don’t see why privatizing the ATC (air-traffic control) services will necessarily make that happen faster,” Shahan said.