Air Traffic Control Privatization Is Just an Airline Power Grab
November 21, 2017
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  • For millions of Americans, the upcoming holidays mean flying home, often to a small town served by a small airport. While Americans make their holiday plans, what they may not know is that the big airlines are demanding Congress pass a bill that would likely threaten needed upgrades at airports in small towns and communities across the country.

     The airlines seek, in the form of legislation known as H.R. 2997, to essentially wrest control of the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system from Congress, and put it in their own hands. This power grab has been peddled as privatization or modernization, but it really amounts to a giveaway to a board of special interests.

     Under this bill, no one would compete to run the ATC system. Instead, it would be stripped away from the FAA, and handed over, for free, to a small, private, unaccountable board. That board would be dominated by the airlines and their allies.

     If the airlines run the nation’s aviation system, there’s good reason to worry that small communities across America would be left behind. Of the country’s more than 5,000 public-use airports, only about 500 are served by the airlines. And that service is shrinking. The same airlines that claim the ATC system would be better in their hands have cut service to small towns and rural communities by over 20 percent in recent years.

     The thousands of communities across America without airline service rely on smaller public-use airports, and the mostly small general aviation airplanes that fly in and out of them. These small airports support cargo and shipping, business travel, flight schools, life-saving air ambulances, transport of vital and timely organ donations, transport of food, water, and medical supplies during disaster-relief efforts, and a host other civil and humanitarian services.

     Will the airlines look out for the economic and transportation needs of America’s small communities? Or will their eyes be on the major “hub” airports, where they generate most of their profits?

     The organizations we represent have been singled out for opposing the legislation that would hand ATC over to the airlines. Those attacks may be politically convenient, but they ignore the growing, well-informed chorus of other voices that oppose H.R. 2997. Nearly 200 aviation groups have written to Congress to share their concerns over this fatally flawed concept.

     Seeing the threat to the nation’s air transportation infrastructure, these organizations are joined by airport groups, agricultural groups, hundreds of businesspeople, mayors from across the country and members of Congress from both political parties. Consumer groups have raised concerns, including the National Consumers League, Consumer Action, and

     Add to that the serious problems in the bill pointed out by independent government researchers. The Congressional Research Service has said it’s likely unconstitutional. The Congressional Budget Office concludes it would increase the deficit by $100 billion. The Government Accountability Office said transitioning to a private board would likely slow down ATC modernization.

     Some airline allies have tried to drum up support for this bill under the banner of privatization, which it is not. The American Conservative Union says the bill would stifle competition, and “fails when weighed against the interests of consumers and taxpayers.”

     For decades, the airlines have spent millions on lobbyists, advertising, and front groups to seize control of our ATC system and run it for their benefit. These are the same airlines whose ancient computer systems routinely fail, grounding thousands of passengers — the same airlines whose customer service has produced shocking headlines.

     The modernization of our ATC system is well underway and the proposed solution is in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. We need to find common ground to ensure that the future of our aviation system remains safe and vibrant. However, one thing is certain, if Congress passes legislation that hands our system over to the airlines there’s one clear winner, and the rest of America would lose.

     Mark Baker is president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Ed Bolen is president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association.

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