Missouri Group Supports Privatizing Air Traffic Control System

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The formation of the group Missouri Citizens for On Time Flights was announced recently. The mix of elected leaders and transportation officials organized to encourage Congress to privatize the air traffic control system.

It's currently run through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has been slow to implement new technology. The "next gen" system, which was designed to cut down on flight delays that plague U.S. air travel, has been hit with its own snags and cost overruns through the FAA.

Missouri Citizens for On Time Flights is a chapter of Citizens for On Time Flights, a nationwide effort which launched in May and has generated over 200,000 emails to Members of Congress so far.

Proponents and critics of the privatization plan come from both sides of the political aisle. Missourinet spoke with former Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota last month, who is lobbying on behalf of U.S. airlines in its favor.

Three Republican state lawmakers recently recited talking points made by Dorgan almost word for word. One of them came from House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot of Lee's Summit.

"Our air traffic control system is a critical part of our nation's economy yet it is still operating with paper strips and the same ground-based system that is has used since World War II," said Cierpiot, who is a Co-Chair of Missouri Citizens for On Time Flight.

State Representative Kevin Corlew of Kansas City also reiterated a remark made by Dorgan practically verbatim. "Our cell phones and cars are operating with better technology than that of America's air traffic" Corlew said.

Both lawmakers are heavily involved in transportation issues in the legislature, as is GOP Senator Dave Schatz of Sullivan. He repeated a talking point made by Dorgan with slight variations.

"Our air traffic control system is at a breaking point and it is directly responsible for nearly 50 percent of all flight delays in the United States," said Schatz, who also Co-Chairs Missouri Citizens for On Time Flight.

Joe Lakin, a spokesperson for the organization, says the privatization effort has been a long time in the making. "This is something that's been under consideration in various levels and congress by administrations for over 20 years" said Lakin.

The current move to privatize air traffic control originated with President Trump's plan for a vast modernization of the country's infrastructure.

The massive undertaking stalled in Congress after a drawn out battle over health care consumed lawmakers' time before the August break. But legislation specifically targeting the air traffic system remains on the table in the House.

The plan calls for the creation of a private, non-profit corporation to oversee the system. Funding for its $10 billion budget would be shifted from a collection of taxes on fuel and airline tickets to a user fee on carriers.

The corporation would be supervised by a 13 member board of directors made up of stakeholders in air transportation. Three of the seats would be occupied by airlines, which has raised a red flag with some lawmakers who fear the industry will have too much influence over policy.

Many Democrats and numerous Republicans from largely rural states oppose the plan. GOP Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Thune of South Dakota are among them.

Through its trade association, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the business jet lobby is vigorously trying to stave off the legislation. It's using famed pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger to lobby against the plan.

Sullenberger, who is celebrated for making an emergency landing of a U.S. Airways plane in New York's Hudson River in 2009, says it would give major airlines to much leverage is determining fees it charged. "Why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines?" said Sullenberger.

Others opponents contend the arrangement would not be truly privatized, but instead would be partly governmental and subject to a taxpayer bailout if it failed.

Among other things, the privatization plan would move funding for the air traffic control system out of the hands of Congress, which often gets bogged down over budget issues. Lakin with Missouri Citizens for On Time Flight thinks the move would stabilize the system.

"The hope is moving this into a dedicated stream of funding in a not for profit corporation will move the air traffic control politics out of Congress, put them in a system that is more sustainable, more technologically advanced and less subject to the whims of Congress."

There's an acute shortage of air traffic controllers. As a result, the privatization plan does have the endorsement of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as long as its union contract is honored.

Congressional movement on the legislation has been pushed back until after the August recess. It's under consideration in the House where Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is the bill's prime author. A Senate bill has omitted the plan is order to get bipartisan support for reauthorizing the FAA, which must be done by September 30th.

Lakin is still optimistic lawmakers will embrace the privatization package as a part of President Trump's overall infrastructure proposal.

"Air traffic control is a big part of his infrastructure outline. So we're still very hopeful that later this summer and this fall the Congress is going to continue to move this proposal forward. And hopefully this fall we'll begin seeing modernization throughout the air traffic control system."

Missouri Citizens for On Time Flights has joined chapters in 10 other states to support the privatization of the air traffic control system. Under the plan, the FAA would continue to oversee air safety.

(Jason Taylor, Missourinet)


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