It is exciting and encouraging that in the coming months, Congress may take up the important priority of infrastructure. As part of this debate, there are many complex and evolving challenges related to our national aviation network and our transportation system as a whole — Ubers of the sky, drones and, of course, broader issues related to ports, highways, rail and many others. In the midst of all of these important priorities, we encourage leaders to keep in mind the needs of rural America and the thousands of businesses, farms, industries and communities throughout our country that depend on general aviation and airports of all sizes.
What most people do not know is that there are over 5,000 airports around the country, and the majority of commercial traffic goes through only about 30 of those airports. This means that for thousands of communities around the nation, this smaller-airport network — used largely by small general aviation aircraft — is a literal lifeline to small and mid-size communities.
Flights from these airports support food production and agriculture, including the soy, poultry, wheat, fishing and other industries, as well as our mining, forestry, energy, financial and construction sectors, among many others. Smaller aircraft and airports aid local farms and ranches as they survey and treat crops and livestock, help our communities to oversee our power grid, and serve as bases for flight training and disaster relief.
Our aviation network also supports access to countless services, including organ and blood transport, medical care, firefighting, law enforcement, border patrol and other civic functions. Rural hospitals are closing at a record rate, meaning that for many Americans, these aircraft are the only connection to life-saving health care in times of emergency.
General aviation also supports businesses of all sizes as a tool to increase productivity, reach far-off plants, transport tools and personnel, and stay competitive in an increasingly global economy. When companies and communities across our country need to attract and retain business, it is their local airport that is often a key component of this strategy. All told, general aviation supports over 1 million jobs and over $200 billion in economic activity and is one of the few manufacturing sectors that contributes positively to America’s balance of trade.
As a result, we must continue to invest in and support this vital industry.
A recent study found that our country will need 131,000 commercial pilots, 60,000 business aviation pilots and 21,000 civil helicopter pilots in the coming years. This means it is important to foster enthusiasm in flying and give our young people the motivation, tools and education they need to pursue careers in aviation so we can continue to stay competitive and foster a thriving aviation industry. That is why we support HR 5118, which was recently introduced in Congress, and would authorize public service announcements to educate future professionals about the benefits of careers in aviation and across the transportation sector.
We also need continued investment in and implementation of “NextGen” modernization technology so that we can increase efficiency and capacity in our air traffic control system. The FAA has projected that these investments have already translated into $2.72 billion in savings, but we still have a lot to do. Congress recently passed a Reauthorization bill that secured long-term funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to continue building on modernization progress to date, and we applaud this important legislation. Our aviation system is currently the largest and most diverse in the world, and in order to retain and grow this diversity, we must ensure ongoing and stable investment in these modernization investments.
As we work to achieve this goal, it is important that we ensure that our system is not handed off to one or more monopoly providers or stakeholders, which would result in decreased competition and efficiency as well as increased taxes and fees as we have seen in systems in Europe, Canada and New Zealand. Delays in Europe more than doubled in 2018, compared with the previous year, costing the European economy 17.6 billion, and this has been attributed to mismanagement by private air navigation service providers, which have not invested in necessary technology and capacity. NAV Canada, which is often held up as a system that the U.S. should emulate, has also seen increased fees and record delays at major airports — and their system will need at least 1,000-2,000 new controllers by next year. Also, we have already seen restricted airspace and increased fees on operators in New Zealand’s system.
In the midst of these debates, one of our top priorities must be to retain access for businesses, farms, agricultural industries and communities to airports of all sizes and our aviation system as a whole. This is critical to the viability of our agricultural and other sectors, to ensure that communities have access to the services and resources that they need, and to grow our economy as a whole. For smaller communities, businesses and our agricultural industry, this access is absolutely vital to economic viability. Let’s stay on track, build on our current progress and continue to work with all stakeholders of all sizes to ensure that our U.S. aviation remains the largest and most diverse in the world.
• Selena Shilad is the Executive Director of Alliance for Aviation Across America. Betsy Huber is President of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.