User-Fee ATC: Speak Up Now or Lose Access

By Scott Spangler on January 18th, 2016

Call it what you like, privatizing, corporatizing, or commercializing the FAA air traffic control system will ruin the foundation of the world’s largest, safest, and most diverse and complex national airspace system. Oh, and unless we stand up and speak up to our elected officials, it will probably mark the end of general aviation as we know it. And not for the reason you think.

Our politicians and the special interests behind them propose this ATC takeover at least once a decade. Common to all of them is replacing the efficient and equitable fuel-and-ticket-tax funding of the system with user fees. Money always gets a pilot’s attention, but that’s not what this is about.

What matters most to the special interests behind these efforts is control of who has access to the airspace and airports. Regardless of the primary target, such as the growing number of low-cost carriers targeted in the 1990’s user-fee ATC attempt, GA always comes second to the airlines’ needs, and in every scheme, airline people are the majority on the board of directors that would run user-fee ATC.

The GA community successfully opposed the user-fee ATC schemes proposed in the 1990s and in 2006-8, but the threat this year is more ominous for several reasons.

First, the current FAA authorization expires on March 31, 2016, which doesn’t give Congress much time to propose, debate, reconcile House and Senate differences, and pass legislation for the President’s signature. This might happen if Congress passes an extension of the current authorization to provide the necessary time. Or, like it has done several times in the past year, it can jam something through before anyone, including the general aviation organizations and individuals the reauthorization would affect, have time to read, analyze, and understand the reauthorization’s language and consequences of it.

And then there is the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Bill Shuster (R-PA). In covering his 2016 election plans, The Tribune-Democrat, reported that “Shuster also discussed his plans for a Federal Aviation Administration overhaul, which has come under some criticism since it was revealed last year that he was involved in a dating relationship with a lobbyist from Airlines for America, a trade organization that tries to influence his committee.”

Before it changed its name in 2011, Airlines for American used to be known as the Air Transport Association. It is the airlines’ trade organization, and it’s lobbied heavily for each user-fee ATC attempt.

Until Congress introduces the legislation, GA opposition is limited, because the details will determine what battles must be fought. A number of GA organizations started their general offensives last year with the first whiff of the current user-fee ATC scheme, and GA’s congressional supporters have not been resting either. Just last week, Mike Pompeo (R-KAN) hosted a special town hall meeting with GA leaders and members of Congress to discuss industry priorities before the upcoming debate on FAA reauthorization.

boleni-5x7Among them was Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, who’s been on the front lines of all the user-fee ATC fights. During NBAA’s first Business Aviation Policy Update webinar, he said that part of the challenge is that there is no one model for a private, commercial, or corporate ATC structure. In the countries that have them, they are all different. If there is a common denominator, it is the flaws that would have detrimental effects in the United States.

“For example,” said Bolen, “Australia’s private ATC system gives priority to commercial airplanes over noncommercial flights.” In busy cities like Sydney, noncommercial flights, like business aviation, “can find themselves waiting, sometimes for hours, to get access to the airspace. It is a real threat.”

This seems to be a common practice among user-fee ATC systems. “I was on a panel a year ago with the head of the Irish private ATC system. When I brought up this concern [regarding GA access], they said that’s just the way it works. It’s natural selection; you just have to get used to it. That’s a troubling comment about the way the ATC works in a privatized system,” said Bolen.

While access to the airspace and airports is the primary threat, money is close behind. Bolen gave two examples of how that has worked out on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the United Kingdom privatized its ATC system, is got into financial trouble and turned to the government for a massive bailout. “If things go well for private ATC, good for them. If they go bad, its bad for the taxpayers who get stuck with the bill,” said Bolen. “In Canada, when ATC revenue didn’t meet projections during an economic downturn, operators faced a significant rate hike when they could least afford it.”

These are just a few of the troubling examples of what can happen with user-fee ATC systems. And our only recourse is proactive vigilance and outreach, one-on-one, with our elected officials. NBAA has made this easier with their Contact Congress link on their website. As has been the case during every previous attempt to institute a user-fee ATC system, we cannot rely on our GA organizations to do all the work, because their voices are only so loud. Nothing catches any politician’s ear more quickly than that of a disgruntled voter. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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