House of Representatives Bill 2997 could potentially reshape the American aviation experience, or it could just be what some opponents call a power grab.
Last month, Congress approved a six-month extension of FAA taxes, with the House voting to extend taxes through March 31 — an action that put the bill on hold for further study.
The bill, which according to its language would “transfer operation of air traffic services currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity,” has garnered opposition from a number of groups, while others say it would be nothing less than beneficial to everyone involved.
For starters, proponents say the NexGen system — a satellite-based GPS system —would help bring the American air traffic control system into the 21st century. This would replace the current radar system.
Jim Burnley, former transportation secretary to President Ronald Reagan, is a major proponent of NexGen, as he co-chairs the Eno Foundation NextGen Working Group.
Burnley said lawmakers have attempted this in the past to no avail, but he hopes now is the right time.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Burnley said. “When I was Secretary in the Reagan Administration I actually talked conceptually about taking it away from the executive branch of the government.
“A big reason was, no other country in the world had done it. [Now] 60 countries have taken that step,” Burnley said.
Currently, when it’s time for the controller to pass a flight on to another, he or she hands off a slip of paper with all the flight’s pertinent details — a system Burnley says is woefully outdated.
According to a June report from Reuters, the new system would include “digital cockpit messaging, live monitoring of aircraft engines and systems, advanced weather maps and faster internet service for passengers.”
So far, the FAA has received a little more than $7 billion for the NextGen system. Reuters cited a Government Accountability Office report that states “the aim was to boost the capacity of the U.S. aviation system to handle more planes, cut flight delays and improve safety.”
But not everyone shares this opinion.
Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, says privatization is nothing more than “a power grab” by the major airlines being sold as a “bill of goods to help us modernize and reduce delays.”
Flight delays, she said, are not the fault of the current air traffic control system.
“I think there’s really no evidence that this would reduce delays or any of the woes that travelers face on an ongoing basis,” Shilad said. “The primary causes are weather and the commercial airlines themselves — not air traffic control.”
Burnley said the the private entity would fund air traffic control through a fee system. Currently, the aviation system is funded through a ticket and fuel tax.
“The user fees would be equivalent to what we do now,” Burnley said. “The current ticket taxes generate almost precisely the amount the FAA spends on air traffic control — that’s why I can say with some confidence they would start out collecting the same kind.”
Shilad said with the major airlines controlling the non-profit corporation, “the entity… would basically take taxes and charge consumers whatever they want.”
“With increasing consolidations and mergers, consumers don’t have any other options,” said Shilad, adding that the majority of the 5,000 or so airports nationwide do not have a commercial airline service.
These airports help support local economies across the nation, she said.
In Mississippi, smaller airports support more than 3,500 jobs and add more than $400 million annually to the local economy. The Meridian air traffic control tower is operated by the Air National Guard and privitazation would have a minimal impact.
In fact, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who serves on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, expressed concern earlier this year about increased ticket prices and/or fees at rural airports.
According to a statement from Wicker’s office, President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao “emphasized that she shares Wicker’s concerns for rural America and looks forward to working with the senator to address his concerns.”
“This [ATC privatization] is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi where small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them,” Wicker said.
Shilad said the special interests behind HR 2997 are seizing a window of opportunity with Trump in the White House.
“With the current administration, there is a doubling down to try and get this done,” she said. “We have a lot of small businesses airports and rural communities in our coalition… If you put a 13-person board in charge of air traffic control, it’s unaccountable to congress.
“…The commercial airlines will have a very influential if not dominating role,” she continued. “It’s also quite a shift to go from a system in which 535 members of Congress are overseeing to [a group of] 13 that is comprised of special interest. That fundamentally is very concerning to us.”
Burnley says this is a ridiculous argument, as only one or two seats of the 13 will be held by representative of the major airlines, he explained.
“You have all these diverse interests that get to select the balance of the board beyond the presidential appointee,” Burnley said. “…The people they nominate cannot be currently employed in the aviation industry. The reason — first and most important — is the fiduciary duty should be the non-profit not their current employers.”
According to the Alliance, the Congressional Budget Office has projected that the bill would increase the deficit by $100 billion.