A number of federal lawmakers have continued pushing efforts to privatize air traffic control in the country, introducing a number of bills over the past three years.
Legislation hasn’t gone to a vote so far, lacking the support to pass, but aviation groups in the state say it seems support has been growing. President Donald Trump has been vocally supportive, which has recently given advocates of privatization more strength.
And every new year that the issue is brought up it seems more elected leaders get on board. This has spurred the aviation community to get its own message out.
The North Dakota Aviation Council, the umbrella organization for aviation in the state, along with its member organizations, the Airports Association of North Dakota, North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association, North Dakota Association of Aviation Museums, North Dakota Business Aviation Association, North Dakota Experimental Aviation Association, North Dakota Pilots Association and The North Dakota Professional Aviation Mechanics, have joined with more than 150 other aviation associations around the country to oppose H.R. 2997, the most recent legislation on the issue. The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Board has not taken a position on the bill but continues to monitor it.
North Dakota Aviation Council Chairman Jon Simmers said the aviation community’s concern with the legislation is more about the unknown.
Currently, all aviators pay a fuel tax based on the volume of fuel used. Those tax dollars are then redistributed by the FAA to pay for infrastructure improvements. Simmers said the fear is, under a privately run air traffic control, that fees would be switched to a user-based system.
General aviation has been billed by privatization proponents as a luxury. But in North Dakota the large majority, about 97 percent, are made up of small operators rather than big business, Simmers said. In reality, general aviation is small businesses, small town banks and specialty medical service providers taking their services to rural communities, where it wouldn’t otherwise be available.
If fees are set by a private board in may become uneconomical for those small businesses to fly, Simmers said.
“There are so many unknowns,” he said.
Simmers said there is also concern over the proposed makeup of the proposed private board. Board representation would be unevenly weighted with commercial airlines over general aviators. This could lead to those commercial airlines acting more in their own interests rather than considering the effects on general aviation. For example, general aviators could find themselves rerouted more often to give commercial flights the preferred route.
“Right now, (allocation of airspace) is handled in an unbiased way,” Simmers said.
North Dakota has 89 airports and the aviation community has an estimated $1.56 billion economic impact in the state, as well as providing 10,000 jobs.
Mandan’s airport contributes about $9 million, housing about 90 aircraft, all piloted by general aviators. Bismarck’s impact is estimated at $280 million, with 2,100 employees and 110 aircraft accounting for about 150 takeoffs and landings daily. The airport also provides shipping for 7 million pounds of cargo annually.
The Airports Association of North Dakota concern is for safety and worry that level of services may not be maintained by a private organization, said board president Matthew Remynse. If the air traffic control board is dominated by commercial airlines, resources may be rerouted from smaller airports to the larger ones.
“More information is needed,” Remynse said.
One argument made by privatizers is that the FAA, which has mandates for Next Gen technology, can’t move as fast as a private organization could.
“The issue with current ATC Technology is that it's over 50 years old. Although the system in the United States is still the safest in the world, it lacks the ability to adapt to the evolving modern technology,” Simmers said. “Current technology allows for more direct point a to point b flight patterns, enhancing overall efficiency through what is referred to as Next Gen Technology.”
Simmers said he understands the Trump Administration is trying to cut governmental costs but, in this situation, privatization may not provide the efficiencies sought. There also may be unintended consequences, particularly for rural areas that are most in need.