New federal aviation bill would privatize controllers at Bradley

A United Airlines Boeing 737 at Bradley International Airport

Creative Commons

A United Airlines Boeing 737 at Bradley International Airport

Washington – A new Federal Aviation Administration bill making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives has drawn mixed reviews from airports including Bradley International, those who fly smaller planes and one of the nation’s largest airlines – Delta.

The hot-button issue for many is the move to privatize the nation’s air traffic controllers. But Kevin Dillon, the CEO of the Connecticut Airport Authority, says he has other areas of concern.

One is that the bill would not raise a fee on air tickets called the passenger facility charge, that is capped at $4.50. That fee pays for airport improvements, but the nation’s airlines lobbied to keep the fee frozen.

“The buying power of that $4.50 has eroded greatly,” Dillon said.

He’s also concerned the bill does not address pilot shortages that have hurt airports like Bradley.

“We’ve already lost service here,” he said.

An American Airlines flight between Bradley and Pittsburgh had to be scrapped because of the pilot shortage, Dillon said.

Dillon said he was “neutral” on the issue that’s roiling Congress, whether air traffic controllers should be transferred from the federal government payroll to a federally chartered, not-for-profit corporation called the “ATC Corporation.”

But there is one aspect of the plan that concerns him.

The board of directors of the ATC Corporation would consist of a chief executive officer, two directors appointed by the secretary of transportation, four directors representing commercial air carriers, two directors from organizations representing the general aviation community, one director representing the air traffic controllers union, and one director representing the airline pilots union.

There is no airport representation.

“And airports rely very heavily on the air traffic controllers,” Dillon said.

Bradley International has 14 fully trained controllers and three who are in training, the FAA says.

Pipeline of Pilots

Congress must reauthorize the FAA bill by March 31 to keep operations at the nation’s airports running.

For years House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Schuster, R-Pa., wanted the FAA reauthorization bill to privatize the controllers. He had a win last week, when the House Transportation Committee approved Shuster’s bill on a 32 to 26 party-line vote.

But the lack of consensus on so many issues and the number of competing interests means a final bill is unlikely to be approved by Congress by March 31, and a stopgap measure extending current authorization may be needed.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, a member of the House Transportation Committee, is among those who hopes for changes.

She was among the Democrats who voted against the bill in committee, largely because of the air traffic controller privatization provision. “And that’s too bad because there are really some good parts of the bill,” she said.

That includes new regulations on drones and modernization of the nation’s air traffic system, Esty said, as well as an amendment she sponsored that encourages the FAA to work with airlines to recruit women to end the shortage of pilots.

“We need to have a bigger pipeline of pilots,” she said.

But on privatizing air traffic controllers, Esty joined other Democrats who say “the “drastic” move would result in too much control over controllers by the airlines and other corporate interest and a possible erosion of safety standards.

“It’s a fatal flaw in the bill,” she said.

While most of the  nation’s airlines, except Delta, support privatizing the controllers, those who fly private planes are pushing back.

Sean Collins, Eastern Regional Manager of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the bill’s new user fees, aimed at helping to fund the ATC Corporation, would fall more heavily on those who fly private planes.

Currently, airlines and owners of private planes pay a fuel tax instead of user fees. Although the tax rate is lower for the airlines, because they use a lot of fuel, they still pay the lion’s share of the tax.

Collins said this would change if user fees replaced the fuel tax.

Tweed-New Haven Airport, Brained Airport in Hartford, Stratford’s Igor I. Sikorsky Airport, Danbury Municipal Airport, Waterbury-Oxford Airport and Groton-New London Airport already have privatized air traffic controllers who work as government contractors.

But under the new FAA bill, the companies that hire those controllers would no longer negotiate contracts with the federal government, but with the ATC Corporation.

Connecticut’s smallest airports, like the one in Simsbury, would also see changes.

Currently, private planes flying into and out of those small airports can choose whether to seek the help of a controller at another airport if they want it. But under the bill, they would have to pay a user fee for the privilege.

“I believe that’s a burden, so there’s a potential safety problem,” Collins said.

But, like Esty and Dillon, Collins says there is good in the bill. “There are a lot of great things inside the bill,” he said.

Among those, Collins said, is a provision that would change the cost share of airport improvement grants so small airports would only need to pay 10 percent of the amount of the grant.

Larger airports, like Bradley International, would not have the same benefit. But that means more money would go to Tweed-New Haven, Brainard and the state’s other airports, Collins said.

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