President Donald Trump released his first budget proposal March 16, 2017, which calls for spinning off Air Traffic Control from the FAA to an independent non-government organization.
The proposal mirrors that of a report released recently by the Eno Center for Transportation’s Aviation Working Group.
“The purpose of spinning off air traffic control from the federal government is to create a safer and more efficient system with the potential to continue the growth of America’s aviation industry. If the FAA was freed of its role of directing air traffic, it would be able to focus on its core mission as the aviation safety overseer,” said Eno’s President and CEO Robert Puentes.
By not being subject to budget sequestration, spending caps, government shutdowns, and hiring freezes, an independent entity would also be better able to undertake upgrades, as well as go to the capital markets for funding.
“Necessary, but sometimes cumbersome, federal procurement rules have hindered the government’s efforts to modernize air traffic control,” said Eno aviation expert Rui Neiva. “This shift would save taxpayers money and help make this crucial part of our economy more efficient.”
Not surprising is GA’s continued opposition to the possible privatization of ATC, with worries that a private entity would be controlled by the airlines.
GA advocates worry that an ATC controlled by the airlines will restrict general aviation access to certain airports or airspace. They also are opposed to the implementation of user fees to fund the system.
“We know that the notion of privatizing ATC has for decades been pushed by large airlines,” said Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “Under such a proposal, the ATC system – which is a natural monopoly that currently serves the public’s interest, and is overseen by the public’s elected representatives – would be turned over to a non-governmental entity effectively controlled by the airlines.
“Under such a scenario, the small and mid-size towns that rely on access to general aviation for everything from civil services, to emergency support, to business access and more, could have their access to airports and airspace threatened,” he continued. “This is among the many important reasons NBAA has long been very concerned over the big airlines’ proposal. Simply put, privatization of the ATC system would benefit commercial airlines at the expense of the citizens, companies and communities that rely general aviation.”
Removing ATC from FAA control and oversight would pose a significant risk to general aviation’s long-term access to the National Airspace System (NAS), echoed officials with the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“We cannot stress enough the threat ATC privatization poses to our ability to enjoy recreational aviation as freely as we do today,” officials said in a statement released March 16, 2017.
“Under such a system, ATC would be overseen and managed by a board made up of commercial interests, with the nation’s airlines having the most powerful and numerous voices,” EAA officials said. “These interests would inevitably drown out whatever token representation and economic impact GA would have on such a board, creating an ATC system that would serve commercial interests with the greatest financial resources.
“Proponents of such a system claim it will make our NAS more efficient, comparing the proposal to other privatized systems around the world,” the EAA statement continued. “But the size and complexity of the U.S. NAS dwarfs those airspace systems, and in many of those systems general aviation has been stifled.”
Additionally, proponents claim that the proposal from the White House, as well as previous privatization proposals, would save U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars, but fail to specify how that would be achieved when all existing labor and infrastructure costs would be transferred to a corporatized system, EAA officials continued.
“The truth is, these proposals do not address the underlying problem of a stable Congressional funding stream for ATC services and system modernization,” the statement noted. “A privatized system would inevitably rely on the flying public, including general aviation users, for its operations and capital investments, with resources flowing to the areas of greatest economic impact: Air carrier hubs and urban facilities.
“As such, ATC privatization would likely threaten funding for infrastructure improvements to rural airports such as towers, instrument landing facilities, and other safety-critical needs for general aviation,” the statement continued. “In fact, consistent with this shift in resources from rural needs to major air carrier commercial operations, the White House budget eliminates funding for the Essential Air Service program, which is designed to preserve commercial air service in rural areas.”
EAA officials note that the FAA and Congress “are the only unbiased arbiters ensuring fair access to the NAS to all of its users.”
“Access today is on a first come, first served basis,” they noted. “The trend under the FAA’s modernization programs has been toward a best equipped, best served model while still preserving access for general aviation operations that cannot meet new equipment mandates. Once responsibility for the air traffic system is taken out of the hands of the FAA and given to a corporate entity, the fair arbiter is lost and the organization that controls the nation’s airspace becomes beholden solely to commercial and economic interests. Those stakeholders that are the best funded, best equipped, and/or carry the most passengers will likely be the best served in a privatized system. General aviation will lose over time to economically powerful interests whose primary goal is to obtain control over the system and its resources. They will seek to minimize their own direct operating costs by reducing or eliminating services that do not directly address their needs and/or by shifting cost burdens onto other users of the system.
“The White House will be relying on Congress to draft this proposal into law under the upcoming FAA reauthorization legislative process intended to be completed by the end of September,” EAA officials said, noting the association is “already advocating on Capitol Hill on behalf of our members and general aviation as a whole to ensure any changes to the air traffic control system serve the needs of GA.”