General and Business Aviation Coalition Mobilizes Against Privatizing ATC

As we’ve discussed here and in the newsletter (see link below), the Trump administration fully supports privatizing the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system in the US.  ATC is currently managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the authority granted to it by Congress, but that responsibility would be transferred, along with all its personnel, control towers, equipment, computers, and software, to an independent group governed by a board of directors comprised of stakeholders representing all areas of aviation, in theory. The proposed new entity would be free from congressional oversight of both policies and budgeting.

On June 22, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced H.R. 2997, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which is simply a reworked version of H.R. 4441 which last year failed to garner enough support.

The official title of the bill states: “To transfer operation of air traffic services currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity, to reauthorize programs of the Federal Aviation Administration, and for other purposes.”

The bill passed through the T & I committee on June 27, mostly along party lines. This time, however, the resistance has proven to be more intense and broad-based among Congress, aviation groups, and the public.

On July 12, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), along with more than 100 additional general aviation groups including manufacturers, issued a press release and a statement to Congress expressing opposition to the legislation. The number of signatories on the letter has since grown to over 130, making it the largest-ever coalition of various general aviation organizations to present a united front in opposition to privatization. A PDF version of the statement can be accessed by following the link below.

Emphasizing the size, significance, and diversity of the coalition, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said, “The group is sending a loud and clear signal of opposition to ATC privatization that echoes the same position held by other groups on the political left and right, elected officials at the federal and local levels and a majority of American citizens.”

The statement also distinguishes between strong support for the need to continue modernization of the aviation system, while arguing against claims that privatization of ATC is required as a part of that process.

The groups who joined the coalition have urged their members to contact Congress to individually voice their opposition, and the NBAA has established a page on its website where anyone can contact their congressional delegates via a dedicated phone number, email, or a special Twitter account.

At the same time the House bill was being introduced, the Senate introduced its own version of FAA reauthorization, S. 1405. This legislation omits any language concerning privatization of ATC, while targeting support toward implementing the Next Generation (“NextGen”) aviation system which has been underway for several years and has already made significant strides in upgrading ATC equipment and software, implementing virtual control towers, and moving toward GPS satellite-based navigation and in-cockpit notifications of traffic (ADS-B). All of these are designed to make air traffic control more efficient while maintaining an excellent safety record.

As a reminder, we’ll mention again that similar proposals have been introduced in Congress over the past twenty years or so, in various forms and usually including a provision that the new system would be paid for by user fees, i.e., landing and perhaps other fees. Each time, such legislation has been supported by the commercial airlines and opposed by general and business aviation groups such as the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), as well as state and regional aviation organizations, flight schools, private pilots, aeromedical operators, agricultural applicators, and numerous others.

Those favoring privatization argue that it would produce a more efficient system, as well as rapid and cost-effective technology updates and improvements, accomplished partly by avoiding the government procurement process.

The arguments against privatization are numerous and are discussed in reference #3 below. One thing is very clear however: an entirely new – and very large – bureaucracy would need to be created to administer and maintain the system.  Studies show that privatization would not save money, and in fact may increase ticket prices for commercial air travel. Also, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that the new entity would end up being ‘too big to fail,’ meaning that taxpayers would be liable for any bailouts if its revenues were insufficient to pay the operating costs.

Another major concern among the non-airline stakeholders is the perceived possibility that the governing board would come to be dominated by the airlines, who would then manipulate the system heavily in their favor. For example they may demand and eventually receive priority routing and separation services from ATC, and may disproportionately apply user fees, both of which are seen as having serious adverse effects on general and business aviation users.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Contributing Author & Technical Support
Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association

Sources:
1.  Largest-Ever Coalition of GA Groups Tells Congress ‘No’ to ATC Privatization.  Dan Hubbard, National Business Aviation Association. NBAA website, July 12, 2017  https://www.nbaa.org/news/pr/2017/20170712-045.php

2.  Statement to Congress: General Aviation Groups United In Opposition To HR 2997.  NBAA website. https://www.nbaa.org/advocacy/letters/20170712-general-aviation-groups-united-in-opposition-to-hr-2997.pdf

3.  Privatizing Air Traffic Control. Mike Straka, PhD. Hangar Network Newsletter, May 2017. https://www.hangarnetwork.com/newsdisplay/1127688454639

4.  NBAA Welcomes Introduction of Bipartisan Senate FAA Bill. Dan Hubbard, National Aviation Busiiness Association. NBAA website, June 22, 2017. https://www.nbaa.org/news/pr/2017/20170622-042.php