OHIO VALLEY — Pilots from across the Southeast recently met with Congressman Bill Johnson (Ohio R-6) for a meet and greet at Jackson County’s James A. Rhodes Airport.
AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) hosted the event, and AOPA Great Lakes Regional Manager Kyle Lewis welcomed the group. AOPA is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1939 and dedicated to general aviation. It is the largest aviation community in the world, representing over 75 countries.
General aviation is defined as all civilian flying except scheduled passenger airlines and military operations. Examples are personal and business travel, agricultural aviation, flight training, medical transport, mapping, law enforcement and search and rescue.
“AOPA is here to represent the interests of the over 360,000 members nationwide, 8,200 of them in the state of Ohio,” Lewis said.
Their mission is “to protect the freedom to fly” by advocating on behalf of members “to keep general aviation accessible to all.”
The proposed HR 2997/21st Century Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act as introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives is seen as a threat to that endeavor by some. At issue is Title II of HR 2997, a measure that would transfer operation of air traffic services from the FAA to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently operates air traffic services and their “NextGen” program is in the process of replacing aging equipment.
AOPA is concerned the proposed legislation will adversely affect general aviation by allowing preferential treatment for commercial airlines. The outsourced Air Traffic Control (ATC) would include a board made up of commercial, corporate and general aviation to oversee the operations, with commercial interests making up a substantial part of the board.
Those against the measure call it privatization, and believe it would give priority to commercial interests and allow for restrictions and prohibitive fees to be placed on general aviation.
With the proposed structure of the board, and the contracted company focused on profit, commercial interests may dominate, and segments without power such as small airports and even smaller cities would loose allocations of resources, according to some.
Proponents, including Johnson, a strong supporter of the bill, say it is a not for profit and will assist with efforts to modernize.
Johnson began by acknowledging “the concerns raised by AOPA are good concerns, and there are no user fees in the bill, nor would I want user fees placed on general aviation in the U.S.”
“I have been a pilot for 49 years,” Johnson said. “But I do not believe giving more money to the FAA will solve the problems we are facing.
The concerns expressed by general aviation have really hit home. There are no user fees in the bill and general aviation is expressly protected. We do not have the votes to pass the bill at this time, but something needs to be done to modernize and repair our airport infrastructure.”
Johnson shared that he believes the best way to move forward on aviation related matters is with Public-Private investments. He said those investments have created innovation, and gave NASA as an example.
An audience participant commented that the FAA was not the problem, rather lack of stable and predictable budgeting, referring to government shutdowns and short term rather than long term funding for modernization projects.
“This is no way to run a business,” was Johnson’s response “Our budget, appropriation and funding process is broken, but the FAA’s problem is just not of funding.”
Another audience member asked,”What protections does general aviation have?”
“The FAA and Congress would still have the oversight of the ATC,” Johnson explained. “The bill is not outsourcing the structure and control, just operations and airspace equipment.”
Lewis initiated a discussion around the high cost to transfer the operations and assets quoting a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.
“What transfers are the systems, with public-private partnership we will get to the ADS-B sooner, Europe is ahead of us.”
ADS-B stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance, an aircraft system that uses satellite-based GPS to replace radar as the primary surveillance method for controlling aircraft worldwide.
Lewis stated the airlines are self serving, and that “we are looking for protection for general aviation in this country.”
Johnson countered that private sector innovation is needed to modernize the ATC, and reiterated that there were protections in place for general aviation.
Another audience member shared the concern that the ATC had quite a diverse group of users, and that historically Congress had been responsive to general aviation. He questioned that once control is turned over to someone with a profit motive, Congress would then be more responsive to commercial interest.
Johnson again agreed with the concern, but remained firm that the board would allow all voices to be heard and that the FAA and Congress had final authority.
While all parties agree the ATC needs to move forward with improvement and innovation, the debate will continue on how best to accomplish those goals. Will the outcome be to continue to operate under FAA control, or to outsource to a private company? The final decision will be made by Congress in the following months.
Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.