Kristen Leigh Painter Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Small Airports, Many Minnesota Towns, Fear Turning Air Traffic Control into a Business
March 6, 2017
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  • Mayors from small and midsize cities around Minnesota and the country are concerned about efforts to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, a move they fear would harm rural airports and communities.

    More than 100 mayors from all 50 states, including those from Winona, Albert Lea, Ely and New Ulm, sent a letter Monday to the U.S. House and Senate transportation committees, opposing renewed efforts to put the system in the hands of business.

     These mayors worry that would give commercial airlines an outsized role in governing the system and could lead to a loss of air service, loss of federal “critical airport” designations, higher fees and financial infeasibility.

     Most rural air strips are used for general aviation, which is the industry term for all civil aviation besides commercial flights. These smaller airports often serve aircraft used in medical emergencies, to fight wildfires, transfer organs for transplants, monitor power lines and train pilots.

     Minnesota has 135 airports that employ 26,000 people. General aviation in the state contributes an estimated $5.3 billion in economic benefit, according to a 2013 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

    “Currently thousands of airports around the country are designated as critical to our national air transportation system by the FAA and thus are eligible for federal funding,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of Alliance for Aviation Across America, which organized the mayors’ letter. “If you put this network under the purview of a private board that is accountable to private commercial interests, that gives us grave concern.”

    Governance of the nation’s airways is a perennial debate in Washington, but the thrum has grown louder in recent months. Airlines For America, the lobbying group representing the majority of U.S. commercial carriers, is making a hard push for privatizing air traffic control and the new Trump administration has signaled favor for a dramatic overhaul.

    Opponents include members of both political parties. The Senate appropriations committee, led by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, sent a letter to the chamber’s committee on commerce, science and transportation, opposing efforts to privatize air traffic control.

     Proponents say a quasi-governmental public-private entity, like Amtrak or Fannie Mae, would be nimbler and quicker to implement the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization efforts, called NextGen, a program rollout plagued by delays. Airlines and other advocates argue that removing it from Congressional oversight would also stabilize its funding.

    The appropriations committee took issue with this common complaint. While funding for the FAA, like other federal agencies, must be reauthorized by Congress every few years, “assertions of a lack of stable funding for the FAA are simply inaccurate,” the committee wrote in a letter on Feb. 28. “In fact, the Appropriations Committee has protected and prioritized funding for the Air Traffic Organization by providing more than 99 percent of the Administration’s budget request since 2008.”

     Proponents often point to Canada and the United Kingdom as examples for how to privatize. These systems rely more heavily on user fees, which opponents say drives up the cost to fly. Opponents like to remind them that the United Kingdom had to bail out its private air traffic control entity following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    Privatization worries George Bolon, the fixed based operator at the Winona Airport, who supports his mayor signing the letter.

    “You will increase the cost for the light, general aviation pilot. You will increase the cost for training schools. You will significantly reduce the safety factor, in my estimation,” Bolon said.

     Safety will be compromised, Bolon believes, as higher costs may encourage some pilots to “risk it” and fly “under the radar” without letting Air Traffic Control know its flight plans.

    “If people become economically driven, they often miss the safety factor,” Bolon said. “Saving one person is worth a lot of money. The system currently in able to do this.”

     Delta Air Lines is an exception among the major commercial carriers in its opposition of privatization. The Atlanta-based airline, and largest operator at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, split from the airline industry trade group last spring over the issue.

    Richard Anderson, then-CEO of Delta, was a vocal critic of efforts to privatize air traffic control. Delta pulled its membership from Airlines For America and wrote several Op-Eds in newspapers saying it believed privatization would escalate costs for the airlines and, ultimately, for passengers.

     In a paper outlining its opposition, Delta said, “General aviation flights typically use more monetary resources than they give back.” If the system is privatized and turned into a revenue-based system, air traffic control resources would likely be prioritized at the larger hub airports rather than spread across the country, Delta argued.

    The FAA manages a network of more than 13,500 airports across the U.S., according to the CIA World Factbook. The next largest network is the entire European Union with about 3,100 airports followed by Mexico’s 1,700 airports. The federal agency gives airport improvement grants to large and small airports.

    Hub airports rely on nearby general aviation airports to relieve them of flights that may not be able to land due to weather or other incidents. Winona Airport is undergoing a $12.5 million improvement project for its safety navigation, such as runway lighting, and about 90 percent was funded by the FAA, Bolon said, “and there’s no question that money [was generated by] the major hubs.”

     Shilad of the Alliance for Aviation Across America said, “In a private system, the board could direct all of the investments to whatever airports they wanted. In many cases, some smaller airports couldn’t survive.”