The FAA / ATC Divorce: Who gets custody of GA?
The Part 121 folks claim they are being hobbled by an antiquated system no longer capable of supporting their needs. Why else would they be chronically late if not for a broken, government-run system? Severe weather was approaching as I planned my departure from the EAA convention this year. The options were to wait an hour in order to use an IFR reservation, during which time the weather would arrive, or to get in line and depart VFR ahead of the approaching thunderstorms. I departed VFR and, in accordance with OSH NOTAMS, attempted to obtain an IFR clearance once 70 nm from OSH. Of course, many other aircraft had the same plan and ATC was saturated to the point that very few were able to obtain a clearance. This type of saturation is illustrative of the current saturation-induced delays encountered by the airlines. The traveling public is exasperated and some think the privatization buzz is a honey of a plan.
I’m an airline pilot, so the colony may restrict my ration of honey for saying so, but if airline executives and politicians could look further down the runway, they would preserve and promote the freedoms, efficiencies and the new-pilot supply chain of GA. By ignoring the underlying saturation issue, airlines are attempting to deflect modernization costs to other hives. And in doing so, they aren’t worried about GA paying for a clearance, deciphering an unplanned route or even that our freedom of flight may wither into non-existence, thusly destroying the supply chain.
Airline CEOs seek lower expenses, higher revenues and fewer late arrivals. And who could blame them? It’s the best way to operate the hive: gather pollen from all sources including the baggage-fee-flower, depart on time and repeat as often as possible. Maintaining a schedule is paramount to the “repeat” portion of the operation an in producing the hive’s quota of royal jelly for the Queen and honey for the shareholders.
The U.S. President has said the proposal to privatize ATC will reduce wait times, increase route efficiency and reduce delays, music to the ears of airline CEOs and the traveling public. But it’s not only saturation in the air. It’s the road to the airport and in the airport parking lot. Then there are long lines at security and in the terminal to buy coffee and food. Once airborne, there are thousands of large and small “airliners” swarming the system and the hubs. As pilots operating in the system, we understand the Part 121 operators are consistently late because of airline hubs and the use of a few (30-40) huge airports, not because of ATC inefficiencies. In other words: traffic saturation.
In promoting privatization and the resultant user fees, the airlines may be defending their balance sheet but are not solving the underlying problem of saturation. The next time you’re on an airliner and you are late, ask yourself this: if we were the only airplane on the planet, would we still be late? En route spacing, spacing in the terminal area and on final approach are already optimized for maximum arrival rates. Where does the saturation come from?
The public wanted frequent departures in order to avoid a three- or four-hour wait at their hometown airport before the next departure. The airlines and manufacturers were happy to oblige by providing more frequent departures and by “right-sizing” the vehicle for the passenger load with the introduction of regional jets. What the passengers got was a flight from their hometown airport on a 50-70 seat RJ going nowhere for an hour or two while the bees lined up to enter the hive. Add weather to any of the airline hubs and the wait increases to three or four hours, or a flight is canceled all together. Ironically, the entire system gets stung by the convenience of increased frequency from hometown airports. Flyers on a tight schedule were forced to seek alternatives and many found them in GA.
Certainly, the general public would enjoy the freedoms and efficiencies of GA, but most don’t know the option exists; the commercial airline system is all they know. More public awareness is needed. I was driving to an airport where I had left the Duke for some paint touch-up: A prop boot failed and threw ice into the baggage door. I had never been to this “little” airport except by air. I was temporarily disoriented during the drive and, against male protocol, stopped for directions.
I got a surprised, “we have an airport?” response. We may have convinced the public that our little airplanes are not the cause of their bee stings because corporate, charter and fractional flying has increased. But GA’s success as a viable alternative to the airlines has not gone unnoticed by the Big Queen Bees. Privatization as a response, and their solution, may create unexpected collateral damage, with negative consequences to the airlines.
The Controller Shortage
If air traffic controllers undergo a financial metamorphosis during privatization similar to those endured by airline employees, they may anticipate a significant restructuring of pay rates, health and dental benefits, life insurance plans and accrued vacation time. Privatization would also include a significant modification to their FERS pension.
In past transportation industry restructurings, this type of financial turmoil resulted in low morale and caused spikes in both personal bankruptcies and divorces. At the airlines, the anticipation of these life-altering events also caused an increase in retirements and resignations as employees attempted to capture benefits before they were lost in the transition.
This phenomenon may exaggerate the existing controller shortage that has already increased pilot workload through traffic management techniques such as ground delay programs and ground stops, RVSM, land-and-hold-short and climb-via/descend-via SIDs and STARS. These procedures were designed to safely allow more airplanes to use the same space while simultaneously requiring less ATC involvement, monitoring and intervention. And according to the airlines and politicians, fewer delays. Apparently, these are insufficient measures as proven by continued late arrivals and resultant privatization debate.
Here’s one possibly stinging scenario: Some version of separating ATC from the FAA will occur even if only an accounting, governance, oversight or funding change to the FAA/ATC marriage. In order to pay for the changes while preserving the soundbite of “no new taxes” on the airline-traveling public, fuel surcharges for avgas and Jet-A will continue and increase. An annual, airspace use-permit will be required for all things that fly from drones to 787’s, regardless of the grass strip, lake, ice cap or metropolis from which they operate. Based on purchasing said airspace permit, on higher fuel taxes and a higher state registration fee, those in GA weighing less than 12,500 pounds will continue to use the VFR and IFR system without “additional” fees. Those 12,500 and up in corporate and Part 121 operations will pay landing fees based on maximum landing weight and will also pay a fee for using the IFR system.
The IT programs of today, including the international fee collecting systems already in place, will make it simple to track airspace use and landing fees. Flight schools take note: The airlines are quickly running out of pilots and they certainly don’t want to choke any source of new worker bees. The answer may be to exempt from user fees, registration fees and any other new regulatory shackles, any GA flying that provides pilot training resulting in a contractually obligated pilot to a Part 121 operator.
If It Ain’t Broke
I saw a T-shirt that said: “The Engineer’s Motto: if it ain’t broke, take it apart and fix it.” Exactly what problem is privatization trying to fix anyway? Over the last 80 years, the U.S. ATC system as operated by the FAA has become the most efficient and the safest anywhere in the world; operating more aircraft in a month than some countries operate in a year. For one week each year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the volume of aircraft movements at this single airport exceeds volumes in some countries. There is little evidence suggesting that the privatization of ATC will reduce saturation, enhance modernization or result in fewer delays for the airlines. Speaking in Oshkosh, EAA Chairman Jack Pelton summarized: “If Congress would just provide the FAA with stable, multi-year funding for its modernization programs, we wouldn’t even be talking about ATC privatization.” The EAA, AOPA, NBAA, GAMA, NATA are asking their readers, members and supporters to take action in order to make GA’s “modernize not privatize” position known to our decision makers and the public. These efforts are necessary in order to counter-balance the move of some Part 121 operators whom, through their ticket purchasing websites, are asking tens of thousands of passengers to do the same on their side of the debate. The tactic could generate a swarm of one-sided letters potentially causing all of GA to suffer the death of a thousand stings. Please participate by going to: www.ATCNOTFORSALE.com and by contacting your representatives.
Although rejected by a Senate panel in late July, privatization supporters continue to promote the concept. The battle will resume this month.