ACU Says ATC Reform Isn’t Privatization, but That’s Probably a Good Thing

When reading the American Conservative Union’s (ACU) recent op-ed in The Hill, “’Conservative’ air traffic control bill fails to privatize industry”, I couldn’t decide if ACU’s opposition is a good thing. ACU’s support hinges on its “Seven Principles of Privatization,” essentially a guide for lawmakers to privatize for the sake of privatizing. Broad-brush principles seldom make for good policy, and as much as we would like to boil complex problems down to seven words or principles, it simply doesn’t work. But the ACU makes a good point – the 21st Century AIRR Act is not privatization. It’s a detailed prescription for a larger goal: improving our nation’s air traffic control.

Earlier this year, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), introduced the 21st Century AIRR Act. The bill is a landmark reform that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and move operations of air traffic control into a not-for-profit entity governed equally by a board of directors that represents virtually every stakeholder in commercial aviation (with the exception of general aviation, who would receive two seats on the board). The Global Business Travel Association supports the 21st Century AIRR Act, and as COO Mike McCormick said, it represents “a rare opportunity to lessen the burden on both the business traveler and the American taxpayer by improving efficiency and saving money.” (Source)

Government oversight, in this case by Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT), is beneficial when it comes to our nation’s air traffic control. For example, when it comes to noise issues, government oversight is an important advocate for the taxpayer. Under the 21st Century AIRR Act, the designated not-for-profit entity would be required to conduct extensive community outreach and submit air traffic changes to the FAA for approval. Additionally, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would still apply, requiring the FAA to conduct extensive community outreach and provide notice to communities impacted by noise. Because there are not one but two opportunities for public involvement, the 21st Century AIRR Act makes the process even more transparent.

Government oversight is also important when it comes to the user fee. The 21st Century AIRR Act would allow the board to establish user fees to cover the costs of air traffic control (except on general aviation who, in addition to a tax cut, will not have to pay for air traffic control services). The DOT would have to approve any change to a user fee, unless it is decreased, after a 30-day public comment period in the Federal Register. This is an important check to prevent the board from unnecessary expenditures that may result in increased costs passed down to the consumer. It is important to note that today the taxpayer does not have a voice when it comes to taxes that are used to pay for operations of our nation’s air traffic control. We simply pay the 7.5% tax on our airline tickets with little say into how the money is being used.

I agree with the ACU that the 21st Century AIRR Act does not meet the privatization test. Nor should it. It was never the intention of the bill to privatize the national airspace. The national airspace is a public trust, one that belongs to the American public. That should be the test. Does a policy serve the American public? Yes. The 21st Century AIRR Act would provide increased efficiency to air traffic control operations as well as billion dollar savings to the taxpayer, and does so through good governance and increased transparency. For that reason, among others, GBTA supports the 21st Century AIRR Act.