Small Towns Skittish about Privatizing Air Traffic Control
April 22, 2017
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  • President Donald Trump’s proposal to turn over management of the nation’s air traffic control system to a private entity is encountering nervous resistance from rural America.

    Small town aviation, farm and business interests fear the president’s plan to create the non-government body and likely finance it with user fees could benefit big city airports and commercial airlines, but create economic stress on remote communities.

    “This could be expensive for our industry,” said Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, whose members include aerial crop dusting and firefighting interests.

    Moore said he’s concerned takeoff and landing fees of $100 per trip proposed in the past could be resurrected, adding that “some of our planes do 60 to 100 takeoffs and landings a day when they’re dusting crops.”

    The present system, under the management of the Federal Aviation Administration, is working just fine, according to Moore. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

    Trump’s plan to transfer day-to-day management of air traffic control to an independent, nonprofit organization surfaced in his preliminary budget sent to Congress a month ago.

    There were few financial details but the Trump administration said the change is needed to save money and bring the system into the 21st century, making it “more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

    The FAA would continue its role of developing and enforcing aviation safety standards but fewer federal dollars would be needed to operate the agency — dollars that Trump said he needs to build up the nation’s military and combat illegal immigration.

    In addition, the president has proposed eliminating the 40-year-old, $283 million a year subsidy for commercial airlines to serve smaller markets.

    “It’s a double whammy for us,” said Selena Shilad, executive director, of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, the national advocacy group for small airports.

    Shilad said she’s concerned private management could be dominated by the major airlines, who support the president’s plan as necessary to free both the operation and funding of the air traffic system from the uncertainty and squabbling of Washington politics.

    She said the big airlines could concentrate air traffic improvements at major airports and cut back on service to small town airports, with their fewer flights and passengers. She also warned of possible higher cost flights to and from smaller airports, and increased user fees for crop dusters.

    That, in turn, her organization said in a letter to congressional leaders, would bring economic grief to farmers, businesses and less populated states that rely on general aviation airports for shipping, crop dusting, fighting grass and woodland fires as well as connecting flights to major airports.

    Anyone who thinks the big airlines would not act that way need only review the recent controversy over United Airlines forcibly removing a seated passenger from a plane in Chicago to make room for an off-duty crew member, said Shilad.

    “The airlines make the case they can modernize the system faster and better,” she said. “But you only need to read the news headlines to question that premise.”

    Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s airlines, did not respond to a request for comment. But it has said previously a private agency handling air traffic would benefit both airline passengers and taxpayers.

    Republican Congressman Bill Shuster from western Pennsylvania unsuccessfully sponsored legislation last year to turn over the air traffic control system to a private, non-profit entity that would be overseen by a 13-member board, including aviation experts and airline representatives.

    He said his bill provided that no special aviation interest would have a majority on the board, and that small town airports did not need to worry about being marginalized.

    Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, believes an independent organization focused only on air traffic could operate more efficiently than the FAA, with its huge bureaucracy and variety of responsibilities.

    “I will never support policies that harm small airports and air service for rural communities in my district and across the country,” Shuster said. “These connections to the national aviation system are essential to local economic development, business opportunities, and job creation.”

    The FAA has been dogged for years by expensive efforts to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. It is currently working on plans to replace older radar tracking with a system that uses GPS technology.

    Despite Shuster’s assurances, locations with smaller airports around the country are clearly concerned. In a letter last month to congressional leaders, 115 mayors in small towns like Terre Haute, Indiana, called the privatization plan risky.

    Jason Bonham, manager of the Central Kentucky Regional Airport near Richmond, said new fees would hurt small industrial companies that use the airport to move goods and staff. He also said it could discourage companies from moving into smaller communities for fear the local airport might close.

    “Airports are vital infrastructure for communities like ours,” Bonham said.