Privatizing the FAA Makes Fear of Flying Rational
September 16, 2017
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  • When Erica Jong wrote about her fear of flying some years ago, she described perfectly my own anxiety the minute I leave the ground in a missile that’s about to hurl across the sky faster than a speeding, well, missile.

    “My fingers (and toes) turn to ice, my stomach leaps upward into my rib cage, the temperature in the tip of my nose drops to the same level as the temperature in my fingers … and for one screaming minute my heart and the engines correspond as we attempt to prove again that the laws of aerodynamics are not the flimsy superstitions which, in my heart of hearts, I know they are,” Jong wrote.

    I know from observing other passengers and talking to air crew that I’m not the only one who finds flying unnatural and unnerving. I’ve seen women in airports working worry beads, their lips moving in silent prayer. Once, on a shaky island hopper in which the pilot sat puffing away on a cigarette under the sign that said “No Smoking,” a guy sang a capella all the way across the Aegean Sea as the ride became rougher and rougher. Even frequent flyers get tense on take-off, relaxing visibly when the seat belt sign blinks off and the drinks cart makes its way down the aisle.

    Every time someone says to me, “Have a safe trip!” I’m forced to acknowledge that I have no control over what could happen in the next few hours. And now that the Trump administration wants to privatize the Federal Aviation Administration, I have even more reason to worry about flying.

    Congress first established the FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program in 1997 to look at privatization as a way to access sources of private capital for airport improvement and development, according to FAA’s website. It allowed private companies to own, manage, lease and develop public airports. The 2012 Reauthorization Act doubled the number of airports that could participate, to 10. That meant that 10 public airport sponsors could sell or lease an airport, with certain restrictions, and could be exempt from some federal requirements. It was somewhat reassuring that only one large “hub” airport could participate in the program. As of this year, there are four airports in the program, ranging in size from the Westchester (N.Y.) County Airport to St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

    This has caused the general aviation community to express grave concern about where they stand in an air traffic control system dominated by big airlines like American, United and Southwest. (So far, Delta Airlines says it doesn’t support the privatization plan because of its expected increase in costs to travelers).

    Another serious concern is safety, and no one takes that more seriously than Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, who famously landed an airplane in the Hudson River without a single loss of life. “Sully” argues that air traffic control privatization is a power play for America that compromises public safety and punishes the wider aviation community.

    “The FAA is not broken,” Sully says. “What this proposal does is take an extreme solution to a non-problem.” The famous pilot says privatization would allow for a corporate monopoly, heavily influenced by major airlines that would be managing the nation’s skies. “It gives the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines,” he says.

    Now, who would you trust more: Capt. Sully Sullenberger, or the country’s largest profit-making airlines and U.S. policymakers?

    Even though I’m considering launching a new FAA — Flyers Anxiety Anonymous — I can admit that, at least for the time being, flying is statistically safer than getting into our cars. I also know that it is a necessary part of modern, fast-paced, global life.

    Still, there’s something about flying — every time that aircraft door is sealed from the outside and those engines rev as I’m racing down a runway — that makes my throat dry up and my stomach flip. Imagine in what a state I, and others like me, would be if we knew air traffic controllers were working for the airlines and not the public.

    Erica Jong would understand. “Constant vigilance,” she wrote. “I keep concentrating very hard, helping the pilot fly that 300-passenger !#+@!”

    For now, I keep hoping really hard that Capt. Sully, and other pilots like him, will keep speaking out about privatizing the FAA. As the good captain said, “I can guarantee you the largest airlines don’t always have the interests of the traveling public in mind.”

    What huge, for-profit businesses do consider the public interest and safety a priority, especially in the present political climate?

    Perhaps it’s time to check out your closest Canadian airport.