California Forum

GOP wants to privatize air traffic control and let airlines run it. That’s terrible for Americans

The air traffic control tower is in sight as a plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in San Francisco. A bill in Congress would effectively privatize air traffic control, handing operations over to a nonprofit critics say would be dominated to the detriment of taxpayers and consumers by commercial airlines.
The air traffic control tower is in sight as a plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in San Francisco. A bill in Congress would effectively privatize air traffic control, handing operations over to a nonprofit critics say would be dominated to the detriment of taxpayers and consumers by commercial airlines. AP

In a rare surprise, both sides of the aisle in Washington agree that Congress should intervene to reform the way our country manages air traffic control. Unfortunately, the similarities end there.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to keep existing air traffic control modernization programs on pace and provide consistent funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to implement all of its safety programs. This strategy would decrease delays, improve efficiency, and allow the FAA to continue to be the global gold standard for aviation safety.

This legislation would turn air traffic control over to a new, private corporation run by a board dominated by the major airlines and their allies – the same people who make record profits by hiking bag fees and charging an arm and a leg for Wi-Fi that barely works.

Major airlines and their lobbyists, meanwhile, are pushing an untested privatization scheme that could have a whole host of ill effects. Later this year, House leadership will be moving forward with the Aviation Innovation, Reauthorization, and Reform Act (AIRR).

This legislation would turn air traffic control over to a new, private corporation run by a board dominated by the major airlines and their allies – the same people who make record profits by hiking bag fees and charging an arm and a leg for Wi-Fi that barely works.

Financially, this bill is a terrible deal for taxpayers. The public has invested over $50 billion in air traffic control assets since 1996, but this legislation would turn over all of those assets to this new privately run entity with no refund to the taxpayers who originally paid for them.

And just like what happened with Wall Street, if this new private corporation mismanages its funds or runs aground, taxpayers will be responsible for footing the bill. This isn’t a hypothetical scenario: In the United Kingdom – one of the only two countries in the world to privatize ATC – residents got stuck with a big bailout when air travel revenue plummeted after the events of 9/11.

This week, we also learned from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, which helps lawmakers evaluate the possible effects of legislation, that implementing the AIRR Act would increase the deficit by $100 billion and trigger mandatory spending cuts of $49 billion over the next 10 years to vital programs like Medicare and the Military Retirement Fund.

Privatization could hurt consumers in other ways. Right now, aviation taxes are set by Congress, which gives individual consumers a voice in the process through their constitutional rights. But the AIRR Act would give the private corporation the right to impose fees on the general public directly, leaving regular Americans at the mercy of an unaccountable private corporation. This new corporation would also have complete control over routes and new safety equipment investment at airports.

It is likely that the private board will invest in the main hubs that are most profitable for their member corporations, leaving Americans in more rural areas behind.

Supporters of this privatization scheme have argued that it will improve efficiency and modernization, but they haven’t specified how or why. The FAA is already well on its way to providing the modernization and additional safety equipment our consumers deserve. The FAA needs more support from Congress. It doesn’t need to be torn in half through an ill-conceived privatization scheme that has failed elsewhere.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Walnut Grove Democrat, represents the 3rd Congressional District. He can be contacted at jrg@mail.house.gov.

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