Don’t privatize air traffic control

As a former member of Congress from a largely rural district, I always strived to ensure that the constituents I represented had full access to our nation’s transportation system—and the global marketplace.  For many areas of the country, the use of general aviation and smaller airports represents a vital lifeline for businesses, farms and individuals.   

General aviation aircraft, and the airports and businesses that depend on them, contribute over $200 billion to our national economy and support over a million jobs.  Whether you are a farmer who needs a part for your combine, a business that needs rapid and ready access to the global economy, or a medical provider transporting patients or veterans to health care facilities, general aviation is a vitally important tool that powers our small business and rural economies.

In 2009, I joined with my friend from Michigan, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R), and other colleagues in the House of Representatives, to form the Congressional General Aviation Caucus.  The caucus quickly became one of the largest in Congress, with members from all types of districts and political backgrounds.  This was successful because general aviation is such a lifeline to so many communities around the nation.  This is especially true for rural communities, as there are fewer than 500 cities in the United States that have any level of scheduled airline service, but there are more than 5,000 communities in the U.S. with airports that provide access to general aviation. 

As Congress is considering changes to our air transportation system, it is crucial that we continue to protect the needs and interests of rural and small communities by making sure that this network continues to not just survive, but also to thrive.  There is currently a proposal in Congress that would remove oversight for air transportation from Congress and put it under the control of private interests.  The stated purpose for this dramatic shift is that the current system is “broken” and a new dedicated funding stream is needed to support modernization.  This argument is flawed and falls short for several reasons.

First, not only has our funding stream remained more constant and steady than many foreign systems but, through shutdowns and sequester, FAA funding has remained steady and has actually increased over time.  With the recent deal on the budget, and the passage of the FY 16 Appropriations package, now is not the time to make this poorly thought out, ill-advised change to this critical part of our nation’s infrastructure.  Modernizing our ATC system is an important goal.  Should Congress wish to create a dedicated, protected funding stream, it can easily do so as it has in other areas of the federal budget, without removing our ATC system from under control of the federal government.

It should also be noted that the FAA’s air traffic control system is actually cheaper to run than NavCanada, which is often held up as a model that the U.S. should emulate.  The current FAA-run system costs $2.07 per mile, 8 cents cheaper than NavCanada charges, and while we need to modernize our system, a recent Inspector General report noted the significant differences between the U.S. aviation system and other countries that have privatized, including the size and complexity of the U.S. system and differences in airport funding.

As was the case in Canada and Europe, ATC privatization will inevitably be followed by user fees which would be devastating to our general aviation industry and the reliant economies. Such fees, which would require a new, large bureaucracy to facilitate collection, have been soundly rejected by Congress every time they have been proposed.  Even if the proposal does not explicitly call for user fees up front, it remains likely that the private board could implement them later – as was the case in Canada.

Last, it is highly likely that any private board or entity governing our air traffic control system would be dominated by the commercial airlines and hub airports.  For this reason alone, it is very important that Congress continue to have oversight so that we continue to ensure that the interests and needs of all communities are served. 

Our air transportation system is a public resource that should be utilized for the public good.  As Congress debates the future of this system, it should not abdicate its oversight responsibility.  Instead, it should strike a balance which establishes a protected, dedicated fund for modernization while ensuring that all stakeholders and communities continue to have access to air transportation and the critical services and benefits it provides.

Boyd served in the House from 1997 to 2011.