OSHKOSH – A small but steady group at AirVenture 2017 waited patiently in front of a 12-by-8-foot petition to sign their names in opposition to a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system.
Moments later, Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman and CEO Jack Pelton began urging a few hundred people at a rally to oppose the proposal that is making its way through Congress.
“You’re going to take a system that works and hand it to a monopoly that is governed by a nonprofit board of directors who have never managed any (air traffic control) system in their life,” he said. “This is not an issue that is going to get resolved anytime soon. It’s going to be a long, long, continued fight.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is currently responsible for the nation’s air space and air traffic control. The proposal, backed by the Trump administration, would move those responsibilities to a nonprofit-style board, something proponents argue would create a quicker path to a more modern traffic-control system.
The proposed operation would be managed by a 13-member board with two members from airlines. It leaves the Federal Aviation Administration as the safety oversight organization.
But 170 general aviation organizations, including EAA, are fighting the proposal saying it gives too much power to airlines who could run the system for their own benefit.
Pelton was joined at the rally by representatives from other aviation groups including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association.
A number of countries, including Canada, France and the United Kingdom operate privatized systems.
While backers tout the plan as one that will speed up modernization of the system, stabilize funding and train controllers quicker, detractors have raised concerns that major airlines could end up with too much sway. They charge that the airlines’ control, and lack of congressional oversight, could affect passenger fees and harm funding for smaller, rural airports.
The union representing air traffic control workers has endorsed the proposal, and the bill’s author, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the change would allow faster, more efficient modernization of the system from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS.
“For too many years, we have put money into the FAA to develop new technologies and gotten very little back. It’s really a waste of the taxpayers’ money — billions of dollars,” Shuster said last month. “Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.”
The matter has caught the attention of the general aviation community, like Jon Simmers from Mandan, North Dakota, who attended the EAA rally Monday.
“From a pilot’s standpoint, the big fear is access to all airports across the U.S. and getting those privileges squeezed out … or we get squeezed from a cost standpoint in user fees,” he said.
Opponents have raised the possibility general aviation could face new restrictions at large airports to clear up space for airline traffic and possibly additional fees for flight services.
Shuster said general aviation wouldn’t pay fees to the corporation and would continue paying their current fuel taxes to the government to pay for other facets of FAA. Details over taxation will be decided by the Ways and Means Committee.
Simmers said the proposal, which has been contentious in congressional circles, has enough traction that the voices of pilots need to be heard.
“It’s certainly got more momentum than anything we’ve had in the past,” Simmers said.
The general aviation community has faced past efforts — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — to privatize air traffic control and implement user fees that have not come to fruition.
Pelton raised the specter a privatized system could also eventually spell the end for AirVenture which relies on FAA controllers for safe operations.
“If you go to a full privatized system, I don’t know any entity that would come in here and operate this tower… and provide their own insurance,” he said. “You stack that up, and it becomes essentially impossible.”
Pelton said it’s not clear when the House might take up the proposal but could happen soon.