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Conservative Air Traffic Control Reform Opponents Continue Campaign of Falsehoods

Recently, I noted how corporate jet lobby National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) had attempted to trot out “Hero of the Hudson” Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger as a supposed expert opposed to air traffic control reform. In advertisements for NBAA front group Alliance for Aviation Across America, Sully at most demonstrated he has not read the reform legislation. NBAA opposes all reform efforts that would reduce the large subsidies corporate jets currently receive under status quo aviation taxation—subsidies that are paid by commercial airline customers.

Over the last year, I’ve also debunked a series of false claims about the reform proposal from a small number of conservative opponents (see here for a summary of their “union giveaway” claims and my responses). Opposition to reform is still primarily coming from NBAA and its front groups, and the number of conservative opponents has dwindled as their claims have become increasingly difficult to make with a straight face.

One exception to the collapsing right-wing, anti-reform contingent is blogger Jazz Shaw at the conservative website Hot Air. Shaw has repeatedly claimed that the proposed nonprofit air traffic control provider would be controlled by major airlines (False: Large passenger carriers would be represented with just one of 13 board seats; if airline unions are included, that brings alleged “major airline control” up to just two of the 13). The phony “airline giveaway” line is being pushed by NBAA and its political operatives, who seek to continue forcing airline customers to subsidize corporate jet operations.

Shaw claims to be in favor of “privatization,” yet he opposes every nongovernmental air traffic control model currently in existence. Tellingly, his preferred “privatization” scheme involves turning over air traffic control to aerospace defense contractors, some of which are currently helping to bankroll opposition to reform due to their fear of losing lucrative contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration. This has been a tactic of the small number conservative reform opponents, many of whom have connections with NBAA—attack realistic reform models with successful track records by pretending to hold out for “better” proposals that will never be on the table.

Shaw has also latched onto Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scoring that purports to show large deficit increases under air traffic control reform. As I have noted, even the CBO concedes its scoring makes no sense when all the moving pieces are considered. Basically, congressional Democrats have been ordering CBO to score parts of the proposal that ignore the cost savings that would result under the full package by nonsensically assuming that the federal government will continue operating a parallel civil air traffic control provider once civil air traffic control is spun off from the federal government.

Yes, the CBO score is really that stupid. Shaw is uncritically parroting the results from CBO’s deeply flawed score that was manufactured by cynical opponents. Michael Sargent of the Heritage Foundation has a short post debunking the most recent CBO score Shaw highlights.

In his latest hit piece on air traffic control reform, Shaw attempts to equate the current U.S. reform proposal and the U.K.’s partially privatized for-profit air traffic control provider, NATS. NATS is the only for-profit air traffic control provider in the world and an entity some right-wing opponents have held up as something for the U.S. to emulate. It’s worth noting that Shaw’s entire blog post is based on a press release from a corporate jet lobby front group.

In contrast, the U.S. proposal is based on the highly successful Canadian reforms, which spun off the government air traffic control office into an independent nonprofit called Nav Canada. On September 1, Nav Canada’s user fees will again be reduced, falling to 45 percent below the inflation-adjusted aviation taxes they replaced two decades ago.

One problem presented by for-profit air traffic control provision is that it inevitably invites aggressive government rate regulation, something U.S. reform supporters are trying to avoid by insisting on a nonprofit provider subject to a statutory cost-based fee schedule. The U.K.’s NATS has seen its ups and downs and has frustrated airlines with slower than expected modernization, but it is hardly the disaster Shaw makes it out to be—especially when comparing it to the actual disaster that is U.S. government-run air traffic control. But Shaw doesn’t even really address problems at NATS. His blog post highlights news reports focusing on operational inefficiencies at British Airways that have absolutely nothing to do with air traffic control.

Shaw may continue claiming he is supportive of air traffic control “privatization,” but in reality he is supporting the inefficient status quo government monopoly. Whatever you want to call Shaw’s position, conservative it is not.