ATC Privatization Proponents Making All-Out Push Ahead of House Vote

With the clock ticking on an FAA extension, airlines have begun a media campaign in Washington D.C.

Dallas Ft Worth ATC
The view from the ATC tower at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.NATCA

As Congress returns to work this week, faced with a bevy of lingering bills and considerable crucial decisions in the wake of Harvey (and ahead of Irma), Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) is expected to make his strongest push yet to pass his 21st Century AIRR Act. And while Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), who opposed the 2016 version of Shuster's bill but is now conveniently his strongest ally, told CQ last week that the House would temporarily shelve the incredibly costly ATC privatization plan and seek to extend the FAA's funding, Shuster's quest to hand air traffic control to a non-profit corporate entity is far from over.

On Wednesday, Shuster told reporters that he is "getting there" in terms of the votes he will need for H.R. 2997 to pass. Additionally, Graves told Politico that he hopes the House is still able to vote on FAA reauthorization on Wednesday, September 13, as planned; however, other "priorities" could change that. He said lawmakers are "still trying to figure out appropriations, and all this disaster stuff."

At the same time, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen spoke about ATC privatization at the JetNet IQ summit, and he didn’t mince words, calling this an “old-fashioned power grab.”

“The airlines, as they have for 25 years, are trying to seize control of our nation’s air traffic system, so that they can use it to give themselves more access and shift their costs onto somebody else,” Bolen told the audience. “When they proposed this 25 years ago, the CEO of a low-cost airline who thought their point-to-point operations were at risk said clearly before Congress: ‘They’re going to tell you this is about good government. They’re going to tell you this is about business practices. This is about economic power, economic control and economic domination.’ He said the airlines literally want to run the system for their benefit and everybody else’s detriment.

“Fast forward 25 years to today, we are sitting here with a country that is dealing with a hurricane that hit Texas and another one that is about to hit Florida, with a debt ceiling crisis and with all the issues that we begin to set forward, and yet next week on Wednesday, the House proposes to take two days to pass an FAA reauthorization bill that will effectively give control of our air traffic system to the airlines.”

Bolen added that GA is an "industry at war," and this is confirmed by the 145 groups and organizations, including Flying magazine, that have teamed up in opposition to ATC privatization. The effort to keep ATC controlled by the FAA received its most recognizable ally when Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger spoke against privatization, and now he is joined by four veteran NASA astronauts.

"We know better than most that our national airspace is precious and that our freedom to use it now hangs by a thin thread," former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford says in the video. "It would surrender the management of our national airspace to a private organization with no accountability to Congress or the executive branch," Ken Cockrell, a retired Navy captain and veteran of five Space Shuttle missions, adds.

Still, this video may not have the impact that an airline-funded media campaign could have. This pro-privatization commercial, which essentially steals the call for modernization from the opposition, is expected to air throughout D.C. this week and leading up to the House vote:

In response, AOPA and other groups are raising money to "fund tactics to educate the public about ATC privatization." After all, Shuster has been able to convince his bill's critics to change their minds with no explanation (although, there is plenty of speculation), and so this media push by the airlines could be the deciding factor in swaying the necessary votes to pass ATC privatization, ending the call for modernization.

(This article has been updated. Additionally, we previously stated that AOPA was funding a TV ad, but that information has been corrected for clarification.)