Battle over air traffic control comes to SD | Local News Stories

A private, non-profit corporation could run America’s air-traffic-control system far better than the Federal Aviation Administration, or so says a member of former President Ronald Reagan’s administration. 

James Burnley, who served as Reagan’s transportation secretary and now works as lawyer and lobbyist for American Airlines, was in Sioux Falls last week making speaking in support of the 21st Century AIRR Act, a bill currently making it’s way through the U.S. House of Representatives that would reauthorize the FAA’s current programs and transfer the nation’s air-traffic-control system to a new, private, non-profit entity.

“I think we’re at the time to get this done,” Burnley told the Capital Journal via phone Aug. 26. “We’re falling further behind in the adoption of new technology.”

Burnley was referring to the problems that the FAA has had in paying for updates to the country’s air-traffic-control technology. The FAA began implementing what it calls NextGen air-traffic-control technology in 2015, after struggling to get the new system up and running for more than a decade.

The idea behind the NextGen air-traffic-control system basically is to use GPS technology and modern computers to reduce the number and impact of flight delays as well as to make flying safer. The new technology still is in the process of being implemented.

Jim Peitz of Mustang Aviation in Pierre challenges Burnley’s premise that the FAA is to blame for the speed at which new technology is being adopted. Part of the problem is that the FAA is funded by a yearly appropriation, which leads to uncertainty in how long-term projects will paid for. Another issue, Peitz said is that the large airlines haven’t been upgrading their planes with the hardware and software they’ll need to take advantage of NextGen when it is fully implemented.

“If you’re not going to pay to use the system that’s already there you can’t complain about it,” Peitz said.

Right now, Burnley said, the FAA’s outdated air-traffic-control system adds about 33 million minutes of delays to flights. Part of the problem, he said, is the 40-year-old computer system that the FAA uses.

“The system is very safe, but we keep it safe by slowing things down,” Burnley said.

The extra minutes mean that a flight crew can’t make as many flights in a day, which means that passenger airlines need to have more pilots. Often, this means that bigger airlines hire pilots away from smaller, regional and rural airlines, which contributes to the current shortage of pilots in rural areas.

Pierre has felt that pilot shortage firsthand. It’s one of the big reasons why the city’s airport had to apply for the FAA’s Essential Air Service program. The pilot shortage was cited as one of the reasons why the airport’s former unsubsidised carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, struggled with cancellations and delays.

Burnley said that the federal government’s unwieldy nature made updating the air-traffic-control system nearly impossible for close to 40 years. Citing Canada’s success in shifting to a non-profit, corporate air-traffic-control structure, Burnley said that the U.S. could streamline decision making and make funding new technology such as remote-operated control towers much easier, too.

Privatizing air-traffic control, Burnley said, could reduce the amount of delays and could free up more pilots to fly rural routes.

The problem with Burnley’s argument, Peitz said, is that flight delays are caused more by how the airlines, particularly at major hubs, schedule flights and a lack of infrastructure than by the capacity of the air traffic control system. Any given runway can only hold one plane at a time, Peitz said, so when an airline schedules 10 flights to depart at the same time, nine flights are going to be delayed a few minutes. That causes a cascading effect of flight delays that is made worse when there’s a severe weather event.

“Do we need to modernize? Yes,” Peitz said. “Do we need more infrastructure? Yes. Is (privatization) going to impact any of that? No.”

Pierre Airport manager Mike Isaacs said it’s not clear what the impact on the Pierre airport would be if the air-traffic control was privatized, but there’s worry among many in the aviation community that the country’s big airlines would get too much control over the skies.

“Giving private companies control of our airspace would be a problem for me,” Isaacs said, noting that it was his personal opinion on the matter.

Right now, pilots landing in Pierre using Instrument Flight Rules, basically all commercial flights and a substantial portion of private flights, are guided by air-traffic controllers in Minneapolis. Privatizing air-traffic control probably wouldn’t change that fact, Isaacs said, but the worry is that the non-profit’s board, if dominated by large air carriers, could shift resources away from rural airports to larger, more profitable hubs to boost the large carriers’ bottom lines.

On it’s face, the 21st Century AIRR Act prevents that by allowing large passenger carriers to pick only one person to sit on the board. Cargo carriers also would get to select a board member, as would regional carriers, general aviation groups, business aviation groups, air-traffic controllers, airport managers and commercial pilots. Two board members would be appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and two more would be selected by the board members themselves. The non-profit’s CEO also would be selected by the board.

It is the five, at-large board members, Peitz said, that cause the most worry. He’s concerned that the large passenger airlines would work together with cargo airlines, commercial pilots, airport managers and air traffic controllers to stack the board in favor of larger carriers.

Another worry is that private and business aviation would be priced out of using a private air- traffic-control system by user fees. They already pay an excise tax on aviation fuel to pay for air traffic control services, Peitz said. So everyone pays based on how much actual flying they do.

Pricing out general aviation pilots and businesses could have profound impacts on rural communities, Peitz said. General aviation covers everything from private pilots to crop spraying to package delivery, he said.

The Pierre airport, for example, can handle everything from air ambulances to packages shipped by Amazon.com in a given day. In October, there can be over 100 planes at the airport at one time. None of those planes belong to a major airline, Peitz said.

General and business aviation organizations are overwhelmingly against the AIRR Act. Peitz said there are over 100 organizations aligned against the bill. The Regional Airline Association also has come out against the AIRR Act. Instead, they favor the U.S. Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill championed by South Dakota’s own Sen. John Thune.

Thune’s bill funds the FAA for four years instead of one and does not include privatization. .

Burnley, for his part, admitted that privatizing air-traffic control would be “a heavy lift” but, he said, it may be necessary if the U.S. wants to keeps its reputation as having one of the best, safest systems in the world.

“It would, I think, be the biggest government reform since the Department of Homeland Security,” Burnley said.

For Peitz, U.S. air traffic control already is safe and tends to work pretty well. Jeopardizing the system by removing congressional oversight just isn’t a good idea, he said.

“We are the envy of the world,” Peitz said. “The bottom line is (privatization) is a solution in search of a problem.”

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