Our National Airspace Is National, Not Private
September 13, 2017
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  • On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Ben Sliney began his first day on the job as the new operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Herndon, Virginia. Within hours, Mr. Sliney made an extraordinary and gutsy call to ground 4,200 aircraft in flight across the United States — effectively shutting down U.S. airspace. The 9/11 Commission Report cites Mr. Sliney’s decision as perhaps the decisive moment to restore control over one of America’s darkest days in its history.

    Imagine instead of Mr. Sliney, with his experienced team and decades of experience, there was a 13-member board. This board, composed of mostly for-profit private corporation members, would likely not be assembled when disaster strikes. Supposing the board could get everyone in communication, the debate begins. Do we ground planes? Do we call the White House and declare an emergency? Is it really an emergency? What is the economic impact on the airline industry if we ground every flight? Do we even have that authority? Should we rather…

    This is how the 9/11 disaster could have become more disastrous if the proposed Air Innovation Reform & Reauthorization (AIRR) Act were law. This bill, also known as H.R. 2997, is attempting to crash-land on Congress. Should it do so successfully, it would create serious degradations to the oversight and national security of our airspace.

    While I applaud the president’s call to modernize our air traffic control system, this is not the modernization he is looking for. How could it be? The bill reduces his authority over our airspace to wartime emergency only. And even if such an emergency as 9/11 obviously warranted a decision for the president and the Department of Defense to intervene, it would have to go through the precious time-wastage of a 13-member board with commercial interests at the forefront of critical thinking.

    The president is neutered even more in non-wartime scenarios. To illustrate, if this bill were law in 1981, Ronald Reagan would have had no authority to fire the striking air traffic controllers to protect the security, safety and economy of the United States. Thank God the bill was not law then or 20 years later.

    The AIRR Act also immensely complicates the interoperability that the Defense Department and other agencies such as the FBI, Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Agency and our intelligence services currently enjoy. Instead of jointly developing the technologies of spectrum vital to our national security, privatization separates them. Unfunded liabilities follow, as technologies deemed economical and efficient for the commercial airlines force the military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies to comply with a private corporation or develop workarounds to do their mission. Under current law, these technologies are developed jointly with interoperability, spectrum and military priority paramount.

    That relationship was recently highlighted when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and the military air traffic controllers seamlessly aided the massive international air terminal at Houston, as well as the monumental relief efforts of search and rescue. It all worked with Americans none the wiser.

    We have the safest airspace in the world and also the busiest. If one were to track flights as a point of light on a map of North America, the United States compared to Canada would look like South Korea compared to North Korea if representing an electricity grid. North of the border, there is very little by comparison. If one compares the 35,000 flights in Europe with the 88,000 to 90,000 flights handled by our magnificent American controllers, there is no comparison. As to safety, we have not had a major airline fatal crash since January 2011.

    Our national airspace is just that — national. It is not private. It belongs to “We the People.” While understandable for conservatives to naturally draw toward privatization like bees to honey, this bill is more like dogs being drawn to antifreeze. It smells good. It tastes good. The consequences could prove fatal. Supposing one were to flippantly dismiss the national security implications of giving up our airspace to a private corporation, there is still that pesky Constitution. The AIRR Act prohibits any Title 31 oversight (the congressional oversight needed by law when public funds are issued) while demanding future appropriated tax dollars, making it likely unconstitutional. There can be no government-regulating, fee-collecting, private entity without congressional oversight. Period.

    There are three vital areas for government to maintain control — national defense, national intelligence and national airspace. The AIRR Act must never make a landing.

    Rep. Steve Russell, Oklahoma Republican, serves on the House Armed Services Committee and on the National Security Subcommittee for Oversight and Government Reform. He is author of “We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein” and served 21 years as a combat Infantry officer in the U.S. Army.