Outcry Increases Against A Private Air Traffic Control Monopoly

The House bill containing provisions that could remove air traffic control from the FAA’s auspices and hand it over to an airline-controlled private monopoly may have lost some momentum in Congress recently, with an expected House vote delayed for now. But as opposition to the bill builds, it does so in the face of relentless efforts every day by powerful congressional leaders and the Trump administration to force a favorable vote from reluctant rank-and-file lawmakers.

As the debate churns in the Capitol, thousands of pilots have contacted their elected representatives to demand that they not gamble with the future of the ATC system. Many of those pilots have posted their opinions on social networks, and have shared AOPA’s and other news reports of the growing resistance with their friends.

“AOPA, pilots across the country, and a majority of Americans agree—air traffic control privatization is a bad idea,” said AOPA President Mark Baker after the expected scheduling of the vote on the bill failed to materialize.

In the last several weeks, AOPA has sent out three call-to-action alerts, notifying members of the existential threat to general aviation that an airline-controlled ATC system represents, and members have responded in highly motivated fashion. (If you haven’t yet contacted your member of Congress to urge that he or she oppose ATC privatization, AOPA has created an advocacy page to make it easy for you to do so. You can also call 855/383-7330 to learn more about the issue and be connected to your representative after entering your zip code.)

The groundswell has brought outspoken opposition from members of Congress; criticism of the plan from the governor of a GA-friendly state far from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.; and a notable panningby Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing.

Facebook has lived up to its calling as a robust forum for sharing news and views. As one of hundreds of posts to the AOPA Facebook page put it in defense of ATC, “It’s working—keep your hands off of it.”

The fact that “it’s working” tends to get lost in the ideological assaults providing some of the impetus for privatization. Inaccurate depictions of the state of ATC as administered by the FAA also have clouded the dialogue.  According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, for example, 80 percent of system delays trace back to the airlines, and weather, neither of which H.R. 2997 would affect.

Rhetoric about the ATC system aside, there are three critical points to keep in mind about the privatization proposal included in H.R. 2997, said Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs.

  • Privatization in this case is really a euphemism for monopolization. The ATC system would be handed over to an airline-dominated private entity facing no competition to keep it focused on operating efficiently as an entity controlled by an industry that— lest we forget—has been marred by more than occasional bankruptcies of some of its major players, and plagued by some famously havoc-wreaking computer-system failuresthat paralyzed air transportation for hours or days at a time.
  • Accountability would be negligible. Congressional oversight would be severely curtailed, leaving Congress’s hands tied to act on noise complaints, new flight routes, deteriorating service, or denials of access to other users of the public’s airspace.
  • In countries where ATC operations have been removedfrom direct government oversight, we have seen a decline in GA, Coon said.

Sullenberger raised his concerns in an interview with Yahoo News. “In most countries, it’s either too restrictive or too expensive for an average person to fly, and the only way you can go is on an airliner or a military flight,” he said, noting that the freedom to fly “is something that we need to protect and preserve. So why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines? Because they definitely have their own agenda—to lower their costs.”

AOPA shared with Twitter users the strong stand against ATC monopolization taken by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who contacted the chairs and ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and its aviation subcommittee, to oppose putting “the busiest and safest airspace in the world” under private control “without sufficient preparation and understanding” of the impact on GA and other stakeholders.

Within a key House committee, H.R. 2997’s ATC provision was met with deep skepticism on fiscal grounds. The House Ways and Means Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) wrote to the committee chair, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) objecting to the plan’s effect of shifting jurisdiction over $14 billion in air transportation excise taxes “to a private board”—one of several repercussions that “will impact jobs all over the country.”

In addition to the many hundreds of Facebook posts, responses, and shares AOPA’s reporting on the issue has generated between early June and mid-July, AOPA received approximately 145 direct contacts from members who telephoned or emailed the Pilot Information Center. Their contacts included requesting more information, encouraging AOPA’s opposition to the proposal, offering rebuttals to statements by proponents, and sharing messages they had sent to members of Congress, and the Trump administration.

One member who described himself as an avid backer of the president nevertheless informed him in an email that, “This is a very rare case where many of your supporters will disagree with you, certainly ALL of those in General Aviation.”

Another member didn’t mince words when summarizing what members expect AOPA to be doing to counter the proposal.

“He says we better dig in our heels and oppose this ATC privatization proposal or he’s going sailing,” noted the Pilot Information Center staffer who took the call.

AOPA has heard members’ voices loud and clear, said Coon, and the association is working daily to persuade and educate policymakers about the riskiness and unintended consequences privatization could impose on an air traffic system that is larger than all others, and second to none in safety and service delivery.

“No one should underestimate the threat general aviation faces from this,” he said. “This fight is real, and it is serious.”