Editorial: Air-traffic scheme raises many questions

Jun 11, 2017 Issues: Transportation

The Spokesman-Review: Editorial: Air-traffic scheme raises many questions

Anyone watching the effort to reform health care should be concerned with the revival of the idea to privatize air traffic control. The House rammed through the American Health Care Act bill before it received an independent assessment of costs and coverage. The Senate is now toiling in secret on its version.

After President Trump touted air-traffic privatization, House Rep. Bill Schuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he wanted to advance a bill by July.

Whoa! Let’s pump the brakes.

Privatizing air traffic control is complex, with huge ramifications. It should not be rushed or fly under the radar. Congress is supposed to be a deliberative body that operates in public. Privatization may have its good points, but Congress does not engender trust with the way it’s operating.

This is Rep. Schuster’s second bid for privatization, with the first bid being shot down in the Senate amid concerns from Democrats and Republicans. Questions about the issue still need to be addressed. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., asked the Government Accountability Office to look into privatization. The GAO report raised salient concerns.

Under the Schuster plan, the air traffic functions of the Federal Aviation Administration would be split off from the safety functions. A private board would oversee air traffic operations. There would be 11 seats on the board, with the major airlines occupying four of them.

The FAA is financed with fees on passenger tickets and taxes on jet fuel. The private entity would be financed with user fees, meaning costs could rise for passengers, general aviation pilots and businesses. What are the ramifications for med-evac aircraft or planes fighting wildfires? How would this private entity coordinate with the military? If it faltered, would the government bail it out?

Larry Krauter, CEO of Spokane International Airport, worries that a private system controlled by the major airlines could be a boon to large airports and bust for the rest. The GAO report echoes that concern. The private entity could decide medium-size to smaller airports aren’t worth it, making them vulnerable to staff cuts, including elimination of an overnight shift. Small operations like Felts Field which are not profit centers could be shut down.

Proponents say privatization would hasten the implementation of next-generation (NextGen) technology, which uses satellites rather than ground-based radar. NextGen leads to shorter routes, faster flying times, better fuel economy and fewer delays. They say the FAA is moving too slowly. The agency points to pauses in congressional funding.

However, the airlines are constantly plagued with their own computer problems, as many passengers can attest. Is it wise to have them steer NextGen?

Privatization has worked in other countries, but the U.S. system is the largest and most complex in the world. Many questions must be answered before this idea gets off the ground.

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