ATC Reform, General Aviation, and Service to Small Communities

September 8, 2017

In the current debate about the proposal made by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) to spin off air traffic control (ATC) provision into a non profit entity, the issue that has risen most times is how it will impact general aviation (GA) and rural America. (Another issue that has come up multiple times is the governance of the new entity, which we cover here.) This is the point that the main groups opposing the bill have been pressing on, and it appears that GA concerns are also the main reason why ATC reform has never gained any traction in the Senate. In the past, GA has derailed any attempts to spin off ATC, so many agree that without their support (or at least tacit consent), any bills will face enormous difficulty in Congress. But what exactly are GA concerns about the proposal? And what has been done to get them to support the bill?

GA concerns can be grouped in three categories. First, they argue it is not good public policy to hand over control of the ATC system to the airlines. Second, they fear that a new ATC provider will charge them per-flight fees to use ATC. Finally, GA has concerns that a non-governmental ATC provider will be able to restrict the use of U.S. airspace to some users, limiting GA’s ability to fly. Let’s take a look at each of these points individually.

Regarding the governance of the system, airlines will only have 3 out of 13 seats on the board, one each for big passenger airlines, cargo airlines, and regional airlines. Hardly a majority. Even if we consider that the airline pilots’ union representative will always align with the interest of the airlines (a big if), that’s still only four seats. In the meantime, GA and business aviation will have a seat each. That is, the board composition does not appear to be dominated by any stakeholder faction in particular, and any decisions will requires negotiation between stakeholders’ representatives on the board.

On the second point, GA has traditionally maintained that the current way in which they pay to fly (the fuel tax, currently at 19.3 cents per gallon of aviation gasoline and 21.8 c.p.g. for jet fuel) is the most efficient way to contribute to the system (the Government Accountability Office had some things to say about that last year), and that any attempts to move to a “user fee” system will be a deterrent for GA to fly. (User fees can be anything like fees charged for every flight, or an annual flat fee similar to a car annual registration fee—this is the system Canada uses, with a $52 annual fee for most GA planes.)

In order to assuage those concerns, the current Shuster bill excepts everyone but passenger and cargo airlines from paying user fees. This includes armed forces and other public aircraft (firefighting aircraft, e.g.), part 91 (GA and business), part 133 (helicopters), part 135 (air taxis), part 136 (air tours), and part 137 (agricultural). Among the exempt groups are business jets that fly among commercial airliners at the same altitudes and speeds, which means that they use the same dollar amount of ATC services en route (see picture below).

The final concern is related to access to airspace. GA currently can freely access most non-military airspace and they fear that might change if a private company is put in charge of ATC. While it is hard to imagine what the goal of such hypothetical restrictions would be, nevertheless the current proposal has a chapter dedicated to the issue: “Chapter 907—General rights of access to airspace, airports, and air traffic services for ensuring safe operations for all users.” Basically, it forbids the ATC corporation to deny access to the airspace on the basis that the user is exempt from user fees. This chapter also mandates that the corporation keeps the current contract towers open, while allowing the corporation to proposes changes to the current contract towers, including closing them (after proving to the Secretary of Transportation that a number of conditions have been met).

In summary, the concerns that GA has raised seem to be exaggerated when compared to the specifics of the revised Shuster bill. The governance of the proposed ATC corporation is no longer dominated by the airlines, GA is specifically exempted from user fees, and access to airspace is enshrined in law. On the other side of the spectrum, there is one big reason why GA and rural America might embrace ATC reform: technological modernization. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not exactly known for being swift in deploying new technologies. While most examples of technological innovations that are normally mentioned relate to airlines, GA also has to gain from new technologies.

An example of this is remote towers: a set of sensors and cameras that allow controllers to control traffic at an airport remotely. This technology, already in commercial use in several countries, has the potential to lower the costs to install ATC in smaller airports (only around 500 out of 5,000 public U.S. airports have an ATC tower), allowing more airports to get ATC services. The technology is currently being tested in Virginia and Colorado, but there is no indication from the FAA that they intend to use it (the two prototypes are being tested with FAA’s help, but they are non-federal projects). A non-governmental provider would have much more flexibility to work with small airports to deploy this technology (and others) wherever it made sense to do so.

For more on the issue of ATC reform see our February report Time for Reform: Delivering Modern Air Traffic Control, as well as our FAA Reform Reference Page, which includes everything related to ATC reform (and aviation legislation in general). Our analysis of the Shuster bill is here and here.


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