A federal proposal to privatize U.S. air traffic control is receiving widespread pushback in the non-airline aviation community.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced a House resolution in June to turn over the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control duties to a private, nonprofit corporation operated by a 13-member board.
Bob Hoff, president of Idaho Falls airplane maintenance center Aero Mark, said the proposal could lead to fewer jobs and reduced, yet more costly services from his business.
“One of the few working, successful government agencies is the FAA; aviation has more freedom of movement and opportunity here than in most countries. This privatization thing is scaring us all,” said Hoff, who has voiced concern to the Gem State’s delegation.
Lawmakers passed a six-month FAA reauthorization Sept. 28, just two days before the administration’s prior authorization expired. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, promised Oct. 3 to amend his bill following concern the proposed nonprofit could receive federal appropriations, Aviation Week reported.
Proponents of the bill, including the Trump administration and major airlines, say it will allow the U.S. to more quickly modernize its air traffic control system, which still largely relies on radar technology in the age of GPS.
However, four Gem State aviation organizations — including the Idaho Airport Management Association, Idaho Aviation Association, Idaho Business Aviation Association and Idaho Contract Tower Coalition — joined a slew of state and national organizations voicing opposition to the resolution.
“Over 100 business leaders from 50 states, most of whom are pilots, have expressed their opposition to the ATC privatization proposal from the big airlines,” said a letter from the groups. “These are successful business leaders who understand a profit and loss statement, as well as flight plans, and are responsible for a significant number of jobs and investment.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined the bill would increase the federal deficit by $20 billion from 2018-2027.
Hoff said air control privatization could lead to more fees for pilots in the general aviation community.
“I don’t know if it will kill, but it will severely impact general aviation outside of airlines,” he said.
General aviation includes “non-scheduled” flights, from recreational trips to chartered business flights. Aero Mark largely serves the general aviation community, but also offers fueling for commercial airline flights.
According to a 2013 study, general aviation supports about 7,900 jobs and contributes over $1.1 billion to the Idaho’s economic output, the Alliance for Aviation Across America reported.
Shuster’s proposal has been discussed in reference to Nav Canada, the nonprofit created to run Canada’s air navigation in 1996. Nav Canada charges fees to cover its air control services.
Hoff, who has flown in other countries, said such fees could be introduced in the U.S. if air control were privatized. Currently, pilots pay FAA fees for fuel and licensing, but not, for example, contacting a control tower or scheduling a flight.
“Canada chose to go on a charge-for-services thing, and it ran the costs of aviation up across the board. Every time you talk on the radio you get a bill for it. In Germany they charge you $15 for a landing” Hoff said. “If they did it here it would be like getting a bill every time you pull your car out of the driveway.”
A higher barrier to flight means less business for companies such as Aero Mark, Hoff said.
“Us little guys would probably quit flying; we’d take up snowmobiling or something else. It would affect our business. We would have to limit our services and probably hire less people,” he said.
The nonprofit board proposed in Shuster’s bill would include a CEO, two members appointed by the secretary for transportation, one for passenger airlines, one for cargo airlines, one for regional airlines, one for general aviation, one for business jets, one for controllers, one for airports, one for commercial pilots and two at-large seats chosen by the rest of the board.
General aviation opponents of the resolution, including Hoff, believe their input would be minimized by an airline-ruled board.
“Normally privatization is considered a good thing because competitive companies do a better job than agencies,” Hoff said. “But this wouldn’t be competitive; it would be a monopoly managed for airline companies. It’s essentially turning over the whole control system to them, and we think everything outside of air carriers will be negatively impacted.”
Hoff acknowledged the need for air traffic modernization, but didn’t advocate taking apart the existing system — “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and hand everything to a monopoly.”
He also mentioned airline bankruptcy rates. All so-called legacy carriers, including American Airlines, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways have declared bankruptcy since 2000, NPR reported.
“They’re the worst as far as bankruptcies go. They’re great when times are good, but when times are bad they tend to close shop and run out of town,” Hoff said. “United went bankrupt, and we weren’t paid old fees by them for three years. A week before they came back we got a check.”