‘Sully’ Wrong on Air Traffic Control Reform

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot who successfully landed his airliner in the Hudson River after losing both of its engines to a flock of Canada geese in 2009, is justifiably a celebrated American figure. He was even portrayed by one of America’s most celebrated actors, Tom Hanks, in 2016’s Sully, a critical and commercial success, if excessively hagiographic of its subject to the point of inaccurately portraying the National Transportation Safety Board as heartless bureaucrats out for Sully’s blood.

In his most recent foray into public life, it is Sully himself who is veering into inaccurate portrayals of bureaucracies. Working with the corporate jet lobby National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), Sully has denounced air traffic control reform as an airline giveaway and “an extreme solution to what’s really a political budget problem.”

As I’ve noted repeatedly and as Drew Johnson recently wrote for Newsweek, NBAA is bankrolling the opposition to air traffic control reform in an effort to preserve its massive air traffic control subsidies under the status quo, subsidies that those of us who fly coach are forced to pay under the present aviation tax system. Under air traffic control reform, Congress would eliminate the aviation taxes that support air traffic control and authorize a nonprofit to charge cost-based fees, greatly reducing the current wealth transfer from typical travelers to the ultra-wealthy—the sleazy status quo Sully is sullying his reputation defending.

It is disappointing to see Sully stump for NBAA and against the traveling public. In reality, it is the United States—which is the only remaining large industrialized country that allows its aviation safety regulator to operate its air traffic control system—that is holding on to an extreme and obsolete governance model that presents a dangerous conflict of interest in addition to inhibiting air traffic control system modernization.

The reforms endorsed by congressional leadership, the White House, airlines, the air traffic controllers’ union, every former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief operating officer, nearly every independent aviation analyst, free market and taxpayer organizations, and former senior officials from every administration since Ronald Reagan’s are modeled on international best practices and present the only viable path to upgrading America’s lagging air traffic control system. Congress and the FAA have proven they cannot get us into the 21st century of aviation operations and safety oversight, with the current government modernization plan called NextGen already years delayed and billions of dollars over budget.

It’s time for the U.S. to do what all our peer countries have done over the last three decades and institute commonsense reforms to the provision of air navigation services. CEI recently released two short reports on air traffic control reform, one a general FAQ and another rebutting myths on labor-management relations impacted under the proposal. We urge Sully to do his homework and to critically assess the false, anti-consumer claims he is parroting on behalf of the corporate jet lobby.