Rural Senators and Private Jet Operators Threaten Air Traffic Control Reform

The Senate apparently wants to leave the current out-dated, needlessly expensive FAA system in place.


ATC Tower
Dan Marsh/Flickr

A bi-partisan group of senators is attempting to scuttle reform with a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that leaves the agency in charge of America's costly and outdated air traffic control system.

Much of the blame for this quick retreat rests with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)—which represents the business jet operators who benefit immensely from the current broken system—and its well-funded effort to lobby rural lawmakers, Bob Poole, Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation (the non-profit that publishes this website) says.

The NBAA has spent $750,000 on lobbying, hiring three different lobbying firms in the first quarter of 2017 alone to make their case directly to Congress.

Business jet operators, are getting "a pretty sweet deal," Poole says. "[They] pay a tiny fuel tax that amounts to…one percent of the total aviation tax revenue that goes to FAA," while using up to 15 percent of air traffic control services.

The NBAA has also covertly mobilized rural mayors and pressured rural senators to block changes to the current system with front groups like the Association for Aviation Across America (AAAA), Poole says. Among them is Sen. John Thune, (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, who said there was not sufficient support in his committee to privatize air traffic control.

In numerous policy briefs and open letters, the AAAA (chaired by NBAA president Ed Bolen) has peddled the claim that air traffic control reform would decimate rural air service by empowering big airlines to spend resources at only the most profitable urban hubs.

The House version of FAA reauthorization (which includes air traffic control reform), however, requires air traffic control service to be maintained for rural airports, Poole says. The House bill also gives smaller regional airlines who service those rural airports the same voting power in its proposed independent air traffic control corporation as larger commercial airlines.

By keeping the FAA in charge of operations, these senators are leaving in place a bad model "that every other civilized country has eliminated by separating air traffic control from safety regulation," Poole says.

Poole has since the 1970s advocated, in the pages of Reason and on Capitol Hill, spinning off air traffic control into an independent, non-profit corporation managed by industry stakeholders and funded by user fees, not tax dollars.

About 60 countries have already adopted this model. In early June President Trump kicked off his "Infrastructure Week" throwing his support behind air traffic control reform. That was followed up by a House FAA reauthorization bill which closely follows Poole's model for reform.

Even people responsible for running the air traffic control system have gotten behind the idea.

"Five or six former Secretaries of Transportation and the current one, Elaine Chao, all support this. All three of the people who have been in charge of running the FAA's Air Traffic Organization…say we've got to do this," says Poole.

Poole also mentions the example of NavCanada, Canada's privatized air traffic control system, whose charter requires it to service numerous airports in vast rural north of the country. Canada's private air traffic control system has also been able to adopt new and safer technology far quicker than the FAA.

Air traffic control reform might still survive the Senate, Poole says. The House version of the bill has the support of several Democrats on the Transportation Committee, as well Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, who had previously been opposed to the idea.

Only a system independent of FAA management and congressional appropriation can bring U.S. air traffic control into the 21st century, Poole says.

"You can't run this thing as a high-tech business, which it's supposed to be," he says, "under the constraints of government budgets and congressional micromanagement."

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  1. Well, good for them, and for the rest of us. Poole is waaaay out of his depth here.

    1. Please provide some details. A bald assertion is meaningless. Poole has provided plenty to back up privatization. You have provided zilch except a bad pun.

      1. Translation: Don’t make me pay for flying my toys.

  2. “In numerous policy briefs and open letters, the AAAA (chaired by NBAA president Ed Bolen) has peddled the claim that air traffic control reform would decimate rural air service by empowering big airlines to spend resources at only the most profitable urban hubs.”

    Uhhhh yep, that’s how it works. If you want the infrastructure benefits that come with living in populated areas, then live in a populated area. Stop expecting the rest of us to subsidize you living out in the boonies

  3. Is the real issue that air traffic services are now REQUIRED in “rural” areas? The NBAA issues are distinct, but perhaps check which areas account for the resourcing.

  4. The real issues are several.

    1. Combing the safety regulator with the ATC operator is putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

    2. Because the FAA has no user fees, its budget is entirely at the whim of Congress, and their micro management has made a mess of trying to buy up to date equipment. Modernizations like remote rural towers save money and actually increase safety because they don’t have to depend on a few overworked controllers.

    3. Because the FAA is entirely at the beck and call of Congress, there is no long range planning. Every time they get started on some modernization plan, some Congress Critter gets an angry letter from a constituent and interferes in the process, setting them back years.

  5. None of this matters; no one should fly anyway.
    “If God meant for man to fly, there would be free parking at all airports.”
    Not to mention airports would be protected by the constitution.

  6. Another demonstration of how heartless, soulless, and greedy libertarians are.
    In the beginning, libertarians failed to appreciate the need to subsidize poor, struggling millionaire family farmers.
    Ten years ago, heartless libertarians failed to appreciate the need to bail out the selfless masters of the universe on Wall Street when hard times befell them.
    After that, heartless libertarians failed to appreciate the need for government to subsidize $60,000 Teslas and to subsidize crony capitalist investments in alternative energy and to bail out GM and Chrysler.
    Now, heartless libertarians fail to appreciate the need to subsidize those who travel by private jet.
    Where does it end?

    1. Unfortunately, not in electoral victory.

  7. “Rural Senators and Private Jet Operators Threaten Air Traffic Control Reform”

    It would be great to know what a “rural senator” might be. Don’t all states have at least one city?

  8. While I agree that FAA needs an overhaul and some form of ATC privatization is necessary, the proposals have been heavily skewed in favor of the airlines.

    The concern of general aviation pilots is that the airlines will build an infrastructure that will squeeze out General Aviation and private pilots in favor of a fully commercialized airspace. Remember that airspace is a resource that belongs to the entire US, not just commercial interests. Airports are a different matter.

    Aviation is PARTICULARLY well suited for rural areas as road infrastructure doesn’t have to be built and maintained. And a lot of those rural locations are commercially beneficial, profitable and not served by the airlines. The Alaskan pipeline comes to mind is a good example. People have to live there to work on it.

    If you go to user fees for ATC, then there is a perverse incentive to forgo safety. While most would say that’s their problem, it is often an airliner on the other end of the equation. Fuel taxes work, but the money always goes somewhere else. Blame congress. They have never found a piggy bank they couldn’t raid.

    The FAA is a monster that has literally strangled that which it is meant to protect. The safety regulations are beyond draconian. There are many technical changes coming (NextGen) that can drop the cost of ATC dramatically, but the process is slow.

    1. GA is the problem. User fees have not been proprotional to the use of traffic control resources. Canada already HAS nextgen. How many years(decades) has it been delayed in the US?

      The privitization model has been shown to work in many countries with better, cheaper service. It makes planning predictable and puts the funding burden on the users. That’s about as ideal a libertarian solution as possible.

      1. GA is not the problem. ATC is a F****ing mess because the airlines are a mess. The airspace is congested because all the airlines fly at the same time. And they use the hub and spoke system which concentrates all flights in a single area.

        If an ATC proposal came along that had SURGE PRICING (Very Libertarian), then I would be ALL for it. But that will never happen because the airlines would scream like a raped ape.

        Fuel taxes are proportional to hours flown and ATC contact hours. The infrastructure is already in place and works. User fees would require A WHOLE NEW Bureaucracy to collect. And you think congress would just drop the fuel taxes? No, they would still exist.

        FAA bureaucracy is the reason NextGen hasn’t been implemented. The parts are in place and work well. However, there is a significant security issue that will cost $$$ to fix.

        I’m a pilot. I experience all this BS first hand.

    2. The Alaskan pipeline comes to mind is a good example. People have to live there to work on it.

      “live there” being the key phrase there. the pipeline doesn’t jaunt off to Hawaii leaving the workers to chase after on improvised rafts.

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