To build a fire … to save our airspace

You may remember reading Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” in which a would-be Alaska gold rush prospector dies when he can’t build a fire to stay warm. He ignored the advice of the more experienced and set out ill prepared for the trail.

It can be seen as a cautionary tale for pilots in many ways, but in this instance I will use it as a warning to everyone in general aviation, from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association to individual pilots: we need to build a fire and, frankly, coaxing a flame from GA is as difficult as lighting a fire in the snow with wet kindling.

If we don’t get it lit, however, GA as we know it may die.

The fire that’s needed is one of enthusiasm, of action, of heated passions.

General aviation is under sophisticated and fairly subtle attacks from the Air Transport Association – the airlines – and from the Air Traffic Control Modernization program.

ATA would like to restrict GA airspace. The Next Generation Air Transport System may well eliminate VFR flight, if not altogether then over large parts of the nation.

Basil Barimo, speaking for the Air Transport Association, has coined the sly term “commercial airspace,” which he defined in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee as “airspace where airliners operate.” He spoke as though the airlines held special rights to parts of the sky, where the rest of aviation should not trespass.

In his oral statement he referred specifically to Very Light Jets operating “in the same airspace as large commercial jets,” implying that such operations would jeopardize the safety of airline passengers. Later, in written testimony, he used the same wording but added the question: “How will FAA ensure that VLJ pilots … maintain the skills needed to operate in commercial airspace?” inferring once again that some airspace belongs to the airlines and impugning the efforts being made by VLJ manufacturers and insurance companies to assure appropriate initial and recurrent training.

Barimo told me that “what we are talking about is airspace where large commercial transports operate. Our goal is to ensure that everyone has access to whatever airports (and) airspace they want, whenever they want it. If we do not fix the funding mechanism and build more capacity into the system, that may not be the case.”

“Fix the funding system” means imposing user fees, in the ATA lexicon.

David Castelveter, ATA’s communications vice president, was asked earlier if the user fee plan would do away with the passenger tax. He said yes. It was suggested that elimination of the tax actually would increase airline costs, which would seem undesirable when so many are going broke. He responded that “everyone should pay their fair share,” the ATA mantra these days.

ATA is having some success with its user fee campaign, having convinced many newspapers that VLJs are, indeed, a safety hazard – not only to airliners but to people living under their flights. The Orlando, Fla., Business Journal makes no secret of its aversion to non-airline aviation in general and DayJet in particular. DayJet, you may know, is planning per-seat, on-demand air service as soon as it starts receiving its Eclipse 500 VLJs, and its initial services will be entirely within Florida.

The truth lies elsewhere, as you might expect. Safety is a red herring. The projection that VLJs will siphon off substantial business from profitable first- and business-class airline seats is the real issue. Studies already show that business aircraft use is increasing dramatically to the detriment of scheduled airlines, and no wonder.

The entire general aviation community has to take off the gloves and hit ATA and the airlines hard.

About 35 or 40 years ago, general aviation did just that when the airlines first wanted us out of “their” skies. AOPA and other GA organizations passed along to the general news media every word the airlines spoke against GA, with a strong rebuttal.

Then-American Airlines president George Spater flew to Washington to take Charles Spence to lunch and ask him to get things calmed down. Spence told him he’d stop printing the stuff when the airline bosses stopped saying it. It worked then and it would work now.

The question is whether today’s general aviation people have enough guts to put up a fight. If you think that winning a skirmish now and then is enough, you’re going to lose a lot more than the right to fly where and when you choose.

You might very well lose the right to fly VFR, at least over large parts of America, at worst anywhere in the country.

That’s according to a June 21 report from the General Accounting Office, discussing planning for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS), usually referred to rather blandly as Air Traffic Control modernization.

The thrust of the 32-page report concerns inefficiencies and closer scrutiny of the program’s organization and practices. Throughout, however, there are references to the system’s accommodation of visual flights versus instrument flights.

It often refers to “critical policy issues” on that subject.

The scope of NGATS is far broader than air traffic control alone. It is expected to be an overhaul of air travel from “airport curb to airport curb” and includes issues as diverse as security screening and environmental concerns.

The report comments favorably on ADS-B which, it says, enables “pilots and controllers to have a common picture of airspace and traffic…the system enables pilots to collaborate in decision making with controllers, safely allowing reduced aircraft separation and thereby increasing capacity within the national airspace system.” That should answer ATA’s expressed concerns, if not it’s real ones.

Gerald L. Dillingham, who wrote the report, notes that some benefits of NGATS are “contingent on users of the system – airlines and general aviation – equipping their aircraft with NGATS-compatible technologies. This is particularly important concerning ADS-B…one of the early core technologies for NGATS.” However, he goes on, “it is unclear whether air carriers will be willing to equip with the second frequency that ADS-B would require.” The FAA now is delaying implementation of ADS-B largely, it seems, due to its cost to airlines. Hmm.

Dillingham also is at a loss to estimate how decisions at the Department of Homeland Security might affect implementation of NGATS. In that, he’s in the same boat as the rest of us.

Several paragraphs in the report are devoted to “global harmonization” of air traffic control, particularly looking at differences between NGATS and Europe’s Single Sky program. There is precious little VFR flight in Europe and none in China, two regions key to achieving “global harmonization,” according to the report.

“Transforming the national airspace system to accommodate what is expected to be three times the current amount of traffic by 2025, providing adequate security and environmental safeguards – and doing these things seamlessly while the current system continues to operate – will be an enormously complex undertaking,” Dillingham acknowledges in his conclusion.

And, again, he points out “concerns such as visual flight rules versus instrument flight rules.”

What the report does not mention is that every airplane registered in the United States – airliner and GA – could fly at the same time over Arizona with no danger of collision. There is that much airspace for that few airplanes. The FAA knows that. The ATA surely knows that. Whether Congress knows that is questionable. Whether the news media know it is a foregone conclusion: they don’t.

Do you know what mene, mene, tekel upharsin means? That’s the Biblical “handwriting on the wall.” It told the people reading it that they were being weighed in the balances and found wanting, so their kingdom would be given to the Medes and the Persians.

Well, my friends, the handwriting is on our hangar walls, like it or not. If we’re found wanting, control over general aviation will be handed over to the airlines and the bureaucrats.

Do you think VFR flight is worth saving? Do you think the airlines will leave the rest of us alone if they beat the VLJs down out of “commercial airspace?”

General aviation needs a strong voice in NGATS, and it needs to sound off before any more mischief is done.

Let’s get that fire built.

Thomas F. Norton is GAN’s Senior Editor.

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