The people responsible for $50 baggage charges and $150 flight change fees are about to be given unlimited license to tax every passenger in the U.S. and potentially compromise the safety of our airspace.
As I read about upcoming proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, I had flashbacks of 8th grade history class when the Colonists were protesting “Taxation without Representation.”
The House Transportation and Infrastructure committee recently unveiled legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its major programs, which is necessary. However, in an unprecedented move, a provision in the proposed bill creates a user-fee-funded air traffic control corporation that will, if approved, take over all of the air traffic control towers in the U.S. In short, the House wants to privatize a major U.S. safety infrastructure and give an 11-person committee the ability to run it and tax us for it.
Air traffic control towers are essential to air safety at the largest 500 or so U.S. airports. We’ve all seen planes stacked up to land or take off—in all sorts of precipitation, wind and lighting conditions. What we don’t see when we’re impatiently waiting for our commercial flight to take off, is the interworking of thousands of planes in routes not originating or terminating at the airports named for U.S. Presidents; ATC also oversees much of the 400,000,000 square miles that make up U.S. airspace.
Counting grass strips used for crop dusting and smaller planes, there are 14,000+ airstrips in the U.S. More than 5,000 of those are paved, meaning they can support jets or other heavy aircraft. Moving the operation of this infrastructure—especially as millions of drones are entering the picture—to a brand-new, private organization poses a major threat to the safety to our airways.
In April 2016, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California proposed two amendments, #3558 and #3650, to the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Act that would give authority to states to pass their own drone laws, possibly creating conflicts with FAA regulations. The FAA and a number of aviation groups, including NBAA, have publicly opposed these amendments, stating that a “patchwork quilt” of regulations that differs from state to state would create a mess of obstacles for commercial drone development, as businesses would have to comply with 50 different sets of rules and regulations.
Today, the U.S. has the busiest and safest air operations in the world. While mired in bureaucratic red tape like every other federal government entity, the ATC part of the FAA performs its job well. And it’s a lot bigger job than what you think if you primarily fly on commercial airlines. There are about 7,000 commercial airliners registered with the FAA in the U.S. An additional 200,000+ aircraft make up what we call the general aviation sector.
General aviation includes firefighting aircraft, life-flight helicopters, crop-dusters, private planes used for recreation or remotely located small and mid-sized businesses, and flight school trainers. General aviation is a vital part of our way of life in the U.S. While it only contributes two percent of the U.S. GDP, general aviation is as American as apple pie. It is one of the few remaining things invented here that is still a U.S.-dominated global market. More aircraft are made in and exported from the U.S. than any other country—and many of these are fueling U.S. jobs.
As the owner of a small business in the general aviation industry, I have grave concerns about creating an air traffic control corporation that may go well beyond user fees. An ATC corporation, controlled in perpetuity by its board of commercial aviation industry insiders (think $20 for a window seat), will place general aviation in constant peril from efforts by most major airlines to cost shift and deny general aviation access to airspace and airports. The proposal will undermine the national air transportation system by denying rural America access to cutting-edge technology, and it will saddle the traveling public with ever increasing fees.
Separating the ATC from the FAA also will pose more problems as we face the challenges of drones in the air. Last year, a number of incidents had the U.S. government scrambling to figure out how to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft. A remote-controlled quadcopter crash landing on the White House lawn brought international attention to the possibility that this could be a serious national safety concern. Another incident made headlines when firefighting helicopters were forced to delay their mission because a drone was seen flying around a blazing forest fire. The potential consequences of a propeller collision with a drone could be deadly, thus grounding the firefighters until they were able to clear the airspace.
There are now over a million unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S. alone and, according to the Washington Post, the FAA estimates domestic drone sales will top a total of $90 billion within a decade. “We’re not talking here about the lethal, multi-million dollar military aircraft that are changing the nature of warfare,” the Post reports. “We’re talking about small, consumer-friendly devices that sell today to hobbyists and others for less than $300.”
In measures to improve regulation of the airspace, as of December 21, 2015, any drone weighing more than 0.55 lbs. was required to be registered with the FAA before flying outside. Today, approximately 300,000 of the 1,000,000 sold in the U.S. have been registered appropriately. The deadline for drone owners to register is February 19, 2016, and the registration fee is a mere $5, which was waived for the first month.
In the last six months, hundreds of pilots have reported seeing drones while in flight, and the FAA has announced that it is testing “anti-drone technology that would counter rogue drones flying within five miles of airports. As proposed, this technology would identify the drone operator and be able to force the drone to land.”
In January at CES, the consumer electronics show held each year in Las Vegas, a Chinese company introduced the first prototype of a passenger drone, which it expects to start selling for $200,000 to $300,000 later this year. It’s only a matter of time before every civil aviation authority in the world must address the safety issues inherent with a massive quantity of personal aircraft. If the U.S. is the world leader in aviation and operates the largest and safest air traffic control system on the planet, why are we considering such a massive change?
It is extremely alarming to me—and most of my aviation colleagues—that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a privatized ATC corporation as a provision in H.R. 4441 on February 3 and plans to push it through committee on February 11. There’s something sneaky about legislation that moves that fast in Washington DC. Something that smells like self-serving, powerful lobbyists—not “We the People” who are increasingly concerned with the safety of our homes, neighborhoods and country.
If you don’t want to see the safest air safety system in the world compromised and already pricey air travel with random fees become more expensive, will you please join me in letting your Congressman know this is not a good idea?