GA advocates are sounding the alarm about a plan to create a privatized Air Traffic Control system funded by user fees.
The plan was unveiled last month by House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), when the Congressman said he intended to introduce legislation to create an independent ATC corporation that would be funded by user fees and separate from the annual budget process.
The plan, brought up now as part of the reauthorization of the FAA, raises — once again — the spectre of user fees, which GA has been fighting for more than a decade.
GA advocates also warn that a privatized ATC system might prioritize certain air traffic — read airlines — over others, such as general aviation.
Under federal ownership, the ATC system guarantees equal access for all of its users, with GA’s share of the costs largely funded through fuel taxes, officials with the Experimental Aircraft Association noted. A privatized ATC will likely lead to user fees for GA, EAA officials said, adding that is something they “vigorously oppose.”
“Any privatization effort must not result in a pay-to-play scheme for general aviation,” said Sean Elliott, EAA vice president of Advocacy and Safety. “Though we certainly understand the desire to find ways to make the air traffic system more efficient and cost-effective, the current fuel tax system of revenue generation works and is efficiently and fairly collected.”
EAA officials also noted that, among other consequences, per-use fees for air traffic services “penalize the prudent practice of using ATC services, such as filing for IFR in marginal conditions or simply receiving VFR advisories.”
Also sounding the alarm is Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).
“The FAA reauthorization legislation that has recently been discussed would be nearly identical to legislation that was put forth during reauthorization in 2006,” said Bolen. “If the kind of legislation that is being considered were to receive a majority vote in Congress, it would cause irreparable harm to general aviation and to those we serve.”
Officials with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) echoed those concerns, adding that it “believes the current method of collecting revenues through a tax on aviation fuel is not broken.”
“Moreover, we believe any air traffic system must preserve GA access to airports and airspace on a first-come, first-served basis, like we enjoy today,” said AOPA Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Jim Coon.
AOPA officials noted that before any reauthorization legislation can become law, it must also be approved by the Senate.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee have already gone on record noting they are against any proposal exempting ATC from the federal budget. Committee members say they disagree with arguments “that the public is served by exempting any part of the FAA from annual congressional oversight” and added they “would oppose legislation to put the FAA or parts of the FAA on funding autopilot.”
The Senators note that the appropriations process provides oversight and and ensures that the “FAA maintains a system that works across the aviation industry, including general aviation, small and rural communities, as well as commercial airlines and large metropolitan cities.” Limiting congressional oversight could reduce small community service, restrict public input and increase consumer costs, according to the Senate committee members.
Expect more discussion on this as debate over FAA reauthorization resumes in September. The current FAA reauthorization expires Sept. 30. Besides providing funding for the agency and its programs, the reauthorization also sets Congressionally-mandated priorities for the FAA.
GA advocates acknowledge that some changes are needed in the FAA and ATC, but warn those changes should not come without the oversight of elected officials.
“There is no doubt that the FAA has spent billions over the years on efforts to modernize our air traffic control system, and we recognize that change is needed to ensure continued U.S. leadership in aviation,” said Coon. “But we must avoid any unintended consequences for general aviation. We’ve seen issues in other countries where general aviation has been put aside and we can’t allow that to happen in this country.”
Lobbyists for the GA groups will be active on Capitol Hill, but it’s important for pilots and aircraft owners to also get involved.
“Our elected representatives respond to active engagement by constituents,” the NBAA’s Bolen said. “If we want our voices to be heard on this issue, we must write letters, send emails, make phone calls, and show up to Town Halls lawmakers host in their home states and congressional districts. If we, as a community do nothing, then we will get nothing.”