Caution on privatizing airways
June 8, 2017
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  • Small towns and cities, especially those dependent on manufacturing, could lose if Congress goes along with President Donald Trump’s push to privatize control of the airways.

    Kentucky has 59 public airports. They are vital to local economies and public safety, though only a handful are in big enough markets to support commercial flights.

    Trump made maintaining access for rural communities and general aviation one of his plan’s guiding principles. But users of small airports and lawmakers from rural states are dubious and rightly so. 

    U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, is warning that “all but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt” while “reliable transportation options” for millions of Americans would be threatened. “Privatization eliminates the chance for Congress and the American people to provide oversight, creates uncertainty in the marketplace and is likely to raise costs for consumers,” said Moran.

    In Kentucky, auto-parts manufacturers depend on just-in-time air freight flights from smaller airports to deliver their products to assembly plants in other states. Air access also is important to companies that own operations in rural Kentucky, are headquartered here or thinking of locating here. Emergency medical services also depend on small airports where air ambulances are based.

    None of that stopped Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, from tweeting his enthusiastic support. Paul applauded Trump “for wanting to privatize the air traffic control system! Modernize, privatize and optimize!”

    The rest of Kentucky’s delegation should act more responsibly by insisting on exhaustive vetting of a plan that could widen the wealth gap between prospering cities and struggling countryside.

    The idea of moving oversight of the air-traffic control system from Congress to a non-profit board has been a favorite of the commercial airlines for years, and a Republican bill to do that was heard in a House committee last year. Proponents of privatization say it would speed up technological advances, thus reducing delays and making a safe system even safer.

    Unveiling his infrastructure plan on Monday, Trump enthusiastically embraced privatization, a curious move for a president who has promised to revive manufacturing in the heartland. Trump’s 13-member board would be dominated by commercial airlines and unions of pilots and air-traffic controllers.

    Logically, those who depend on general aviation, including rural and agricultural interests, are warning that a board dominated by commercial airline interests would shift more of the cost burden onto patrons of small airports, making general aviation more expensive, while prioritizing large commercial air corridors.

    A 7.5 percent tax on air passenger tickets, plus taxes on aviation fuel and general tax money, pays for the Federal Aviation Administration, which among other things runs the air-traffic control system. Trump would replace those taxes with user fees imposed by the new board. So, could a pilot and corporate exec flying into Paducah or Owensboro be charged the same landing fee as a 600-passenger jet in Atlanta? The devil’s always in the details.

    Delta, the only big carrier opposing privatization, has a study showing it would raise air travel costs for all.

     Congress should exercise extreme caution before shuffling a system on which so many depend.