Trump’s ATC Reform Will Harm General Aviation

Today President Trump, with his usual great fanfare, unveiled his Air Traffic Control Reform Initiative, which he said is widely supported by the aviation community. But not everyone in the community supports it.

In fact, out of the 590,000-odd certificated pilots in America, the new ATC initiative benefits no more than 25 percent. (Based on 2015 FAA statistics.) The largest single group of pilots in America are private pilots, who fly for their own benefit, and are not allowed to make money from flying.

Since hitting a low of 72,280 in 2009, the number of student pilots in America has rebounded to 122,729 in 2015. despite a decline in the total number of certificated pilots. General aviation in America is doing better than it has in many years. Trump’s proposal will harm it by imposing user fees to fund air traffic control.

Retired Sen. Byron Dorgan wrote a piece supporting ATC reform in The Hill in late 2015. Trump’s proposal is very close to what Dorgan described. It’s not privatization per se. It will create a non-profit corporation, similar to what many European countries, and our northern neighbor Canada have done, that employs controllers, purchases and maintains the systems necessary to route flights, and generally manages the airspace for the FAA.

Trump, in his remarks, said the FAA will focus on safety. He said that the non-profit entity will maintain support for “rural communities and small airports.” But in reality, we know that user fees will favor the large operators and burden private pilots.

Just getting into the “NextGen” system will require more avionics hardware. For a general aviation pilot like myself, I might not be able to transit Atlanta airspace at all without expensive upgrades, adding systems like TCAS and ADS-B (which is already mandated for 2020). With Trump’s reform, I might have to pay a toll to use ATC services.

Less pilots will be able to fly, but the airlines will be able to cut their own deals with the new entity (and since they have the money, they’ll dictate technology requirements, and get preferential treatment even more than they do now).

The largest general aviation advocacy organization in the U.S., the Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots Association (AOPA) opposes user fees.

“We are always open to new ideas that could make the FAA more efficient, but we are not hearing reports from our members about problems associated with air traffic control, and we will continue to oppose user fees on any segment of general aviation,” said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Jim Coon.

Certainly, America’s airspace and ATC can use a technology upgrade. And previous efforts have been less than successful. But shifting to a user-fee system isn’t necessarily in the best long-term interests of travellers (consumers), since pilots drive the industry. When there are less private pilots, the airline industry becomes dependent on military pilots or pays for civilian training.

Even foreign carriers like Lufthansa train their pilots in the U.S. because it’s cheaper to fly here. American general aviation is the large funnel that keeps the airlines supplied with talent–world wide. The airlines only care about their profit. They would rather GA pay more, and they pay less. It’s not good for general aviation to pay onerous user fees.

This new system will harm general aviation, and end one of America’s unique freedoms.

When small general aviation private pilots can’t afford to fly or train new pilots anymore, America will have lost a small, but important freedom in pursuit of being more like Canada.