By: Barbara E. Lichman, Ph.D., J.D.

In an unusual divergence of opinion between aviation related organizations concerning progress in the operation and development of the national air traffic system, the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”), the nationwide organization of private aircraft owners, opposes the plan set forth in the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, H.R. 2997 (“AIRR Act”).  That plan calls for the air traffic control (“ATC”) system currently managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to be removed from federal government control, and turned over to a 13 member, largely private, board, the dominant members of which are the nation’s commercial airlines.  See § 90305.

The apparent rationale behind the shift, heavily supported by the commercial airline industry, is the consistent delays and resulting costs in fuel and efficiency that have been endemic to the ground based radar air traffic control system in effect since World War II.  The airline industry maintains that insufficient progress has been made in expediting operations to accommodate the increasing number of operations in the United States airspace.  The commercial airlines’ position is supported by the legislative purpose which is “to provide for more efficient operations and improvement of air traffic services.”  See § 201.

AOPA, on the other hand, relies on examples of the disputed improvements in system management which it maintains undercut the airline industry rationale for pursuing privatization.

For example, AOPA defends FAA’s current accomplishments in the implementation of the “multiple runway” program at the nation’s busiest airports, whereby FAA supports development and use of new, more widely separated runways that allow reduced separation between aircraft because of approved wake turbulence impacts and, thus, increased operations in a shorter period of time.

Similarly, AOPA points to the implementation of the performance based, or satellite based, navigation (“RNAV” and “RNP”) systems as ahead of schedule in several locations including Northern California (of course AOPA declines to mention the plethora of lawsuits challenging the implementation of the Northern California and other programs, some of which threaten to stay that implementation).

Finally, AOPA supports its position by reference to the implementation of the System Wide Information Management (“SWIM”) Surface Visualization Tool ahead of schedule, purportedly allowing terminal radar (TRACON) controllers to better monitor congestion and more quickly react to requirements for changes of use on airport runways and taxiways, especially in less than favorable weather.

Interestingly, and in an effort to quiet AOPA’s vocal concerns, the legislation contains various provisions aimed at ensuring the equitable treatment of private aircraft owners.  For example, while the corporation will be financed by user fees, § 90313(d)(7), the legislation prohibits the charging of fees for air traffic control services to “aircraft operations conducted pursuant to Part 91, 133, 135, 136 or 137 of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations,” notably including general aviation which will continue to support the system through fuel taxes.

H.R. 2997 has not yet been passed, so the entire debate may turn out to be academic.  It does, however, highlight the ongoing rift between two of the most influential segments of the aviation community (airport operators being the other) concerning the future management of the air traffic control system so vital to the entire aviation industry.

Source: Aviation & Airport Development Law News