Air Traffic Control Might Finally Move into the 21st Century
America is long overdue for an overhaul of our radar-based air traffic control system. Yet federal modernization efforts are plagued by delays, cost-overruns, and shifting goals and requirements. Congress and regulators have been lackluster at managing and upgrading the 24/7 business of air traffic control, according to reams of government audit reports.
That’s why many policymakers, air traffic managers, free-market organizations, Clinton and Obama administration transportation experts, the Department of Defense, airlines, and even labor unions are supporting a proposal to restructure air traffic control around recognized best practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The U.S. is the last major industrialized country yet to reform air traffic control in this manner and the House is expected to vote soon on these reforms as part of the 21st Century AIRR Act.
The goal is to modernize air traffic control for the benefit of all air travelers. The best way to do that is to keep the Federal Aviation Administration as the national aviation safety regulator but separate out the Air Traffic Organization, transferring air traffic control duties to an independent non-profit user cooperative. Airspace users would pay cost-based user fees, and any excess revenue is reinvested into the system or returned to customers.
This model has been highly successful where it has already been adopted in recent decades. It ends the conflict of interest of having an aviation safety regulator regulate its own air traffic business operations. And that more focused, streamlined system has led to lower costs, fewer delays, and the adoption of modern technologies and practices.
Unfortunately, a special interest group representing the flight departments of Fortune 500 companies is vigorously opposing common-sense reforms. The National Business Aviation Association is the primary American lobby group for corporate jet owners and operators. Its board of directors includes members representing industry titans such as American Express, DuPont, JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, and Walmart. NBAA fears losing its massive cross-subsidy to C-Suite corporate executives from people who fly coach.
Most taxpayers and air travelers are unaware that under the existing federal aviation tax structure, corporate jets get a massive tax subsidy. Business jets contribute less than 1 percent of the tax revenue that supports air traffic control yet account for more than 10 percent of system use. Taxes on airline tickets conveniently pick up their tab. Complaints from the corporate jet set over new cost-based user fees would be understandable, but for the fact that the current proposal exempts them from fees.
But the NBAA has bankrolled campaigns that falsely claim air traffic control reform is a giveaway to major airlines. In truth, under the reform plan, large and regional passenger carriers will have just two seats on a board of directors that numbers 13. They get the same number of seats as general aviation, such as NBAA’s members and noncommercial hobby pilots.
Among lawmakers in Congress, opponents expressed concern about the impact of reforms on general aviation. That’s because, despite being held harmless by the reform proposal’s user fee provisions, the general aviation lobby coordinated by NBAA has claimed airport and airspace access will be threatened.
That, too, is wrong. The 21st Century AIRR Act provides robust, explicit access protections that were negotiated by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., a pilot and co-chair of the House’s General Aviation Caucus. Graves recently endorsed the reform legislation after his concerns were addressed. So has Ohio-based NetJets, a NBAA Leadership Council member and the largest business jet company in the world.
The real problem is the current state of air traffic control. The status quo, with its inconsistent funding and risk of government shutdowns, is what threatens general aviation access, particularly in rural areas. Under the reform proposal, the non-profit, with its consistent revenue stream and improved management, would be able to more rapidly deploy remote and virtual control towers to improve access by reducing the cost of providing air traffic control services at rural, low-volume airports.
To build its anti-reform echo chamber, NBAA hatched front groups under the auspices of the Alliance for Aviation Across America and GA United’s ATC Not for Sale. These NBAA-backed groups repeat NBAA talking points and purport to show broad grassroots opposition to reform. But tax records indicate nearly all of the Alliance’s budget came from NBAA contributions, and GA United’s campaign is run by the senior manager of content and social media at NBAA.
“Hero on the Hudson” Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger appeared in videos for the Alliance, and Federal Communications Commission records indicate NBAA is actually the group responsible for placing Alliance television ads featuring Sully during August of this year.
NBAA probably believes it’s acting in its members’ interests, although, tellingly, the general aviation lobby has been attacked by their foreign general aviation counterparts for their mischaracterizations of the reform experience outside the U.S. But NBAA’s private interests should not trump the public interest.
Forgoing a modern American air traffic control system just to preserve the corporate jet welfare that everyday American airline customers underwrite is a boondoggle all members of Congress should reject.
Originally published to The Washington Examiner.