More on ‘Sully’ and Private Jet Air Traffic Control Subsidies

I previously wrote about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s recent advocacy against air traffic control reform on behalf of the heavily subsidized corporate jet lobby. Since then, I came across a new video from Sully for a group called Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA). AAAA is a front group for the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the corporate jet lobby mentioned above. According to tax records, NBAA in 2014 (the most recent IRS Form 990s I could find for both groups) accounted for more than 85 percent of AAAA’s total contributions. AAAA is operated by Selena Shilad, president of Shilad Strategies, “which is owned 100% by Selena Shilad [and] provides consulting services for the Alliance for Aviation Across America” according to tax records.

It should be quite clear that AAAA serves primarily to front for NBAA and personally benefit Ms. Shilad’s PR firm, as opposed to a broad-based coalition or trade association. So, what of Sully’s stumping for AAAA and the claims he makes in their new spin video?

In the video, Sully repeats the false NBAA/AAAA talking point that air traffic control reform amounts to a giveaway to the “largest airlines.” The reform legislation currently pending in the House does no such thing. As I explained in a recent FAQ on the bill, the 21st Century AIRR Act, the stakeholder board that would govern the nonprofit air traffic control provider gives just one seat to large passenger airlines. Two other seats would go to small regional passenger carriers and cargo carriers. This is out of 13 total board seats. Is less than 8 percent of board control for the “largest airlines” excessive when the vast majority of passenger air travel occurs on commercial airlines?

Further, under the legislation, no board member could be employed by or have a direct interest in any of the stakeholder entities represented. They would have a fiduciary duty to the nonprofit air traffic control provider and could be held legally liable if they ever deviated to serve private aviation interests.

Sully also falsely claims that the “big airlines” would “set the rules of access” and “costs of access.” Under the proposal, the nonprofit air traffic control provider would be constrained on setting access rules and fees. These protections were fought for and gained by Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), co-chair of the House General Aviation Caucus and a previous skeptic of reform. Under law, the user fee schedule must be set in accordance with the cost-based charging principles of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The U.S. Department of Transportation would have regulatory roles for both rates and safety, in addition to having two permanent board seats.

Why would the corporate jet lobby hate cost-based user fees? Because, as I have noted numerous times, under the current aviation tax system, corporate jets account for more than 10 percent of air traffic control system use yet pay less than one percent of the taxes that support that system. This massive subsidy to the wealthiest aviation users is paid by airline customers in the form of ticket and segment taxes.

It’s a bit rich for Sully to claim airline customers should be opposed to air traffic control reform when the primary beneficiaries of the failing status quo are the corporate jet set who are now cynically trading on his reputation as “the hero of the Hudson.” Sully, a former US Airways pilot, ought to know better—and likely does. In fact, the union representing his former US Airways colleagues has strongly endorsed air traffic control reform. Despite his status in public life, Sully does not represent the interests of American air travelers and is out of step with current airline pilots, who know the air traffic control system they rely upon is in dire need of reform.

It’s also worth noting that Canada’s commercial and noncommercial general aviation communities strongly support the successful Canadian reforms that took place two decades ago, which the current U.S. reform plan closely resembles. Canadian general aviation recently demanded that their American counterparts cease their campaign of falsehoods against the Canadian nonprofit air traffic control provider, Nav Canada, and the state of general aviation in post-reform Canada.