William Garvey Aviation Week & Space Technology
Rural Citizens Rally To Keep Federal Oversight Of ATC
November 28, 2017
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  • Rural Citizens Rally To Keep Federal Oversight Of ATC

    Legislative threat to a way of life?

    OK, quiz time: What do the National Grange, West Virginia Coal Association, National Council of Agricultural Employers, League of Rural Voters, United States Cattlemen’s Association, Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, USA Rice Federation and Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, West Virginia, have in common? I’ll wait . . .

    Wow, you’re right! They are all united with leading business and general aviation groups in adamant opposition to the transfer of the federally owned and operated air traffic control (ATC) system to an independent entity overseen by a nongovernmental board invested with the power to formulate fees and prioritize investments.

    Another shared trait is that most of the organizations represent industries, businesses, facilities and residents in quiet, wide-open spaces hundreds or thousands of miles from Washington’s I-495 beltway. As such, they are suspicious of moves by those in power that threaten their way of life. And any loss of access to the National Airspace System is seen as doing just that.

    If it comes as a surprise that the hard-working, terrestrial-focused rank and file of the National Farmers Union would even be aware of the ATC giveaway legislation proposed by a Pennsylvania congressman, let alone take a firm, public stand against it, look to the Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA). Although Washington-based, the nonprofit coalition has focused on the wide-open spaces since its founding 10 years ago.

    It was the creation of a variety of aviation organizations, airport authorities, flight schools, mayors and others concerned that general aviation’s contributions and importance to rural communities were largely unknown to the general public. That ignorance was seen as a real danger to aviation, business and health interests should a threat to the former arise. So, they formed the AAAA to serve as general aviation’s educational ambassador to the industry’s rustic beneficiaries.

    In many places within the U.S., general aviation is pretty much Everything Aviation. Its piston- and turbine-powered aircraft haul freight and equipment, seed and fertilize crops, deliver medicine, transport the injured, patrol the highways, power and pipelines, bring in businessmen to negotiate deals and take families to see grandma at Christmas. AAAA’s tiny staff addresses local Rotary Clubs, legislators and editorial boards and attends conferences and conventions to share the general aviation story.

    Underscoring the breadth of general aviation activities is the number of facilities that accommodate them. As AAAA notes, in the U.S. “there are 5,136 public-use airports that can be directly accessed by general aviation.” By contrast, only about 1/10th of those facilities have a scheduled airline service, and that “is dwindling—by about 20% in recent years,” AAAA says.

    Among the coalition’s concerns are continued federal funding for Essential Air Service to low-traffic cities, as well as the Airport Improvement Program. “It’s part and parcel to our mission,” says Selena Shilad, AAAA’s executive director. But right now, the ATC issue is paramount.

    The reason? Fears that the proposed ATC board would be heavily weighted in favor of the airlines, which have demonstrated a strong preference for consolidation and concentrating service and infrastructure in “fortress” hubs to the disadvantage of new competition and small-town residents. Were that favoritism and power then to be applied to the ATC system, rural aircraft operators could see their access to airspace and the airways compromised and their operating costs increased. A double whammy.

    Shilad says while AAAA has taken a clear stance on the matter, it pretty much leaves the lobbying to those it represents. “We encourage members to talk to Congress,” she says. “They can put a face on it that I cannot.”

    Besides, those within the Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance, Texas Aviation Association, Granite State Airport Management Association and Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce understand the issues, know their representatives and vote.

    To help them make their case, the AAAA has developed economic impact tools it provides free through its website (aviationacrossamerica.org). Any visitors can input their ZIP code and discover the number of general aviation employees in the region, their payroll and total dollar impact there. It also cites a 2013 PwC national study that pegged total general aviation employment at 1.1 million jobs that year and its total economic contribution at $219 billion annually.

    That the AAAA, among others, is succeeding at spreading the word about the threat to general aviation might best be highlighted by a decision of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors. Yup, it joined the coalition as well.