Aerial Firefighters Urge Caution As ATC Privatization Debate Unfolds
June 28, 2017
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  • The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) is urging Congress, and all aviation industry representatives, to take a cautious approach to proposals to separate the US air traffic control (ATC) system from the FAA and reorganize it as a private corporation.

    “AHSAFA understands that among the arguments favoring ATC privatization is that, as an independent body, it would largely avoid the effect of the budgetary battles, and speed up the adoption of technology innovations and the procurement process,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based trade association which represents the interests of the privately owned aerial firefighting industry.  “But does the problem reside in the FAA’s bureaucracy, or an inefficient management of the funding revenue stream by Congress? This may be the core issue to be resolved before transitioning from a tax based service to one that is privately funded through the implementation of user fees.”

    As Hill pointed out, aerial firefighters often use the ATC system to reposition helicopters and fixed wing tankers, as their customers—the US Forest Service and state government fire protection agencies—dictate.  For this reason, he said, the aerial firefighting industry is seeking clarification of policies concerning user fees as the corporation’s primary funding source—a proposal made by the Trump administration.

    User fees, in fact, have been the preferred funding method for independent ATC systems throughout the world.  While some believe that any fees imposed would not be so catastrophic as to restrict ATC services to the airlines on a de facto basis, nobody at this time knows how such fees would be structured.  For general aviation, including some members of the aerial firefighting industry, this is a serious concern.

    “As it is, the ATC system already benefits from fuel tax revenues,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  “If user fees are imposed, I don’t see the fuel tax being reduced as an off-set.  We would simply have an additional tax in the form of the fees, which could be increased exponentially over the years, and passed on to our customers.”

    Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, noted that while he generally favors privatization, he, too, is concerned that an additional cost burden may be imposed on aircraft operators if ATC is privatized.  “We don’t fly often in the ATC environment, given the low altitude levels in which aerial firefighting missions are flown,” he remarked.  “But it’s hard to tell how it would affect us.” 

    Along this line, concerns have been expressed about the extent to which user fees might act as a deterrent to a pilot’s decision to fly within the controlled airspace.  “If the ATC system were privatized, the utility helicopter industry could be pushed away from using it, in order to avoid paying the fee,” argued Brian Jorgenson, Vice-President, Timberline Helicopters, in Sand Point, Idaho.  “With less people participating, lower airspace flight levels will become more congested, making them less safe for everyone.”

    For some operators, a major question involves the impact of user fees on the continued existence of small community airports, which could see a reduction in traffic.  There are, in reality, worries about the ongoing viability of those airports, given the out-sized clout of the commercial airlines in a private ATC corporation.  As the predominate user, the air carriers, it is estimated will account for some 90 percent of the projected funding.

    Currently, the US has about 19,000 airports, of which 5,200 are considered public use.  Of those, less than 700 have commercial air carrier service.  Many in the aerial firefighting community whose helicopters and tankers typically use small, non-air carrier airports as bases of operations on wildland fires, fear they would be at risk of closure under a privatized ATC system.

    “Some guidance is needed to ensure the ongoing operation and future of those airports—and continued access to them by the aerial firefighting operators—should the ATC system becomes a corporation,” AHSAFA’s Hill urges.  “The United States has a national network of airports, much as it does a nationwide highway system.  The question is, how would that change under a private ATC system?”

    A related, and yet to be determined question involves flight planning approval.  Because a fire emergency mandates a quick response, immediate flight approval of flight plans, including any necessary last minute changes to those plans, is essential to aerial firefighters.  Under the current US ATC system, pilots file their flight plans on-line.  With few exceptions, such as when slot controlled airports are involved, pilots are afforded rapid approval.  However, according to one operator of a large business jet management firm with international charter operations, approvals for flight plan changes in many countries with private ATC systems can take hours, or even days.  For aerial firefighters some safeguard must therefore be instituted to ensure priority routings in the event of a fire emergency.

    “To date, some 16 major general aviation trade associations have come out against the establishment of a stand-alone ATC organization, and AHSAFA respects their position.  As aerial firefighters, we are a small, but vitally important, segment of general aviation.  But at a time when Congress is seriously considering a radical restructuring of an ATC system which oversees approximately 50,000 aircraft movements per day, and has proven to be the world’s safest, AHSAFA believes it is essential for all facets of general aviation and the airlines to engage in meaningful dialog as to the pros and cons of a privately run ATC system—and the form that such an entity will ultimately take,” Hill said.