- - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In the ongoing and vociferous debate about air traffic control system privatization, after all the sound bites and ad campaigns, we are left with really one certainty. “Privatization” is simply an attempt by the airlines to shift taxes and reduce access for rural America.

The airlines and their allies have spent millions attempting to sell lawmakers and the public this bill of goods. They have organized trips to Canada, although interestingly, not to the United Kingdom. They have slyly deferred any specific questions about cost savings, how delays and congestion would be alleviated, and how the implementation of NextGen would be facilitated more quickly under privatization.

In spite of all this, why are we certain that privatization is about control and reducing access, and not about modernization? Because the airlines have said so.

In one of the first meetings with the president some months back, the CEO of one major airline said that the problem with the current air traffic control system is that they “are not in control,” that the issue was about the “fundamental organization of the air traffic organization.”

This is and has always been about the major carriers gaining more control, which is why their proposal would take authority over our air traffic control system away from 535 Members of Congress who represent communities of all sizes, and put it in the hands of 13 industry stakeholders. Despite claims by the airlines that they will not have that much control in a privatized system, they will have much more than they do today — and they will have it with no competition or oversight.

Why do we think that this is about directing resources and increasing taxes on rural towns and smaller communities? Because the airlines have said so.

The CEO of another major airline has said, “we also need to direct infrastructure improvements into the regions of the country where they’ll produce the most benefits, like the Northeast Corridor.” And, in a new narrative, one proponent has admitted that the motivation is that Congress would have to end the aviation taxes that currently support ATC and authorize a nonprofit to charge cost-based fees, resulting in a “wealth transfer.”

This is crony capitalism at its worst: using the legislative process to try to spearhead a tax shift from one industry to another, holding hostage thousands of airport improvement projects and billions in FAA funding. Consumers and communities will never see any of the benefit if the airlines are gifted control and taxing authority over air traffic control. Consumers are paying more in fees than ever, and still the airlines underinvest in their IT systems, resulting in an outage about once a month.

The proposed increase in taxes and shift away from smaller communities will drive a stake right in the heart of rural communities. Decreasing air service and driving service away from smaller communities is not just a rural problem, it’s an American economic problem. In Cincinnati, where flights have been slashed in recent years by nearly 600 flights a day, Veritiv announced in 2015 it would relocate to Atlanta. The company cited the reduction in flights a Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport as the primary reason for moving. Just last month, Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport announced that the only airline serving that eastern Ohio airport was pulling out.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. land is found in rural counties. Rural industries like agriculture and food production ($136 billion/year), firefighting, flight training and disaster relief are critically reliant on smaller aircraft. This isn’t just an issue that affects some communities, it affects all of our ability to keep our industries alive, food on our plate, power to our homes, water to our stores and technologies to our desktops. Smaller aircraft, airports, businesses and communities are America’s lifeblood.

For decades, our FAA reauthorization process has been mired down by this exhausting and repetitive debate about air traffic control that has nothing to do with modernization, but that is really about gaining taxing authority and squeezing the life out of rural America. It’s time to say no, for good.

Niel Ritchie is CEO of the Main Street Project and Past President of the League of Rural Voters. Selena Shilad is Executive Director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America.

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