Video: Rep. Steve Russell Invokes Sully Sullenberger in Opposition to ATC Privatization

As the House delays a vote, the aviation safety expert says there are better ways to solve this “political budget problem.”

While Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) finally found the support he needed to get his FAA reauthorization bill, the 21st Century AIRR Act, passed by the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for which he serves as chairman, it has still been met with a great deal of opposition within the aviation world. In fact, on Tuesday, it was revealed that the House vote on H.R.2997 has been delayed, but it does not mean that the effort to privatize air traffic control is dead.

At least 120 aviation groups added their names to a joint statement opposing the AIRR Act, and specifically ATC privatization. Even as Rep. Sam Graves, a pilot, has switched his stance from last year and asked his colleagues in the GA caucus to pass this bill, lawmakers have spoken out against the plan to hand air traffic control over to a nonprofit corporate entity.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) took to the House floor last Friday to explain why he's against H.R.2997 and, perhaps sensing the need to draw more public attention to the cause, he invoked one the biggest names in aviation: Capt. C.B. "Sully" Sullenberger. The aviation safety expert and pilot-in-command during the "Miracle on the Hudson" recently spoke to Katie Couric about why he is opposing the AIRR Act and ATC privatization. Russell quoted a key excerpt from that interview during his speech:

My real issue, and I think for many people, is that we have a wonderful and unique freedom in this country, this unfettered, wonderful aviation system that anyone can participate in safely and efficiently. In most countries, it’s either too restrictive or too expensive for an average person to fly, and the only way you can go is on an airliner or a military flight. It’s just prohibitively restrictive or expensive to do it any other way. That’s something that we need to protect and preserve, and so why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines? Because they definitely have their own agenda to lower their costs. Commercial aviation, airline aviation, has become an extraordinarily cost-competitive industry globally, and it becomes more so by the day.

Sullenberger claimed that what is really going on is a “political budget problem,” and ATC privatization is the “extreme solution” that allows “… stakeholders, basically controlled by the largest airlines, to control access to and pricing of access to the air traffic control system.”

One of the compromises that Shuster made in amending his failed 2016 bill, according to Graves, was a guarantee that "no user fees were levied on any segment of general aviation." However, aviation groups still maintain that privatizing ATC will cost billions in transition, when that money could be much better spent improving the current system and leaving it in the control of the FAA. "A privatized ATC would be inherently 'too-big-to fail,' resulting in taxpayer bailouts just as we've seen in Canada and the U.K.," AOPA president Mark Baker said last week.

Yet even as the Senate's competing FAA Reauthorization Bill has garnered support from the same groups that oppose the AIRR Act, Sullenberger is still worried about the ongoing effort to make ATC privatization a reality.

“I’m worried about access. I’m worried about equitability. I’m worried about safety,” he told Couric. “There are other, better ways to solve this political budget problem — by giving the FAA, in running the air traffic control system and making capital improvements to the air traffic control system, more predictable multi-year funding — without giving away the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines to control access and fees and pricing too.”