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Who Owns American Skies – the People or the Skyjacking Airlines?

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That’s a question currently being asked by legislators in the halls of Congress. Without a muscular pushback from the public, the big airlines could claim the American airspace as their own to tax and regulate, without any significant compensation to the American taxpayer and no oversight from elected officials. Talk about getting skyjacked!

An amendment in the 273-page FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) reauthorization bill―  H.R. 4441 ―currently moving through Congress means to remove air traffic control from the authority of the FAA and hand it over to a private, not-for-profit corporation. This new corporate-controlled body would be responsible for the over 50,000 flights that take off each day without any input from Congress or the American people. The Washington Post reports: “The House bill to create the federally chartered corporation would transfer about 38,000 federal workers, including 14,000 controllers who now work for the Federal Aviation Administration.” This amounts to a staggering nearly 80 percent of the FAA’s workforce. It would also giveaway billions of dollars’ worth of air traffic controller equipment to this private body.

Spearheading the charge for air traffic control privatization is House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) who states that his bill, called the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization [AIRR] Act, will lead to the “transformational improvements we need in order to modernize our nation’s aviation system.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Rep. Shuster is the top recipient in the House of Representatives of airline industry contributions, and has even admitted to being involved “personally” with a top lobbyist from Airlines for America, a trade association representing most of the major airlines, which is a leading advocate for air traffic control privatization.

This old song and dance routine might sound familiar to those who have paid attention over the years to the corporate-funded propaganda campaign that aims to convince the public that corporations can manage and deliver services more efficiently and at less cost than democratically-controlled governments.

One chief criticism against the current air traffic control system is a $40 billion FAA modernization program known as “NextGen” that is behind schedule. However, implementing a seismic shift in airspace authority is choosing to solve a problem that isn’t causing any major issues for travelers – the air transportation system – as it is not fundamentally broken, and the United States has the safest air travel in the world, which is remarkable when you consider that it is also the most active and most complex system in the world. Under this new plan, air traffic control navigation would shift from a ground-based radar system to a new, satellite-based method.

“Running a science experiment with the most complex airspace in the world comes with a lot of risk, including the uncertain futures of thousands of workers at FAA,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) at a House Transportation Committee panel on Thursday. (The airline-industry dominated panel approved the bill on a 32-26 vote and it will move on to the House floor.)

Most of the major airlines are, not surprisingly, in support of this new measure with one notable holdout―Delta Airlines. Delta released a study that found that “Travelers could have to cover 20-29 percent higher costs if the U.S. moves to a private ATC [air traffic control] organization.” Advocates for privatization often cite the privatized air traffic control systems of Canada and the United Kingdom as models to aspire to. According to Delta’s study however, during the first six years of implementation of the private model, “Canada saw an additional 59 percent increase on ATC-related fees. In the United Kingdom, ATC fees rose 30 percent.”

With potential higher costs to travelers, not to mention the risk of transitioning to a new un-tried and untested satellite system, what exactly is the American flying public gaining from this deal?

In an op-ed in USA Today, Captain Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations for Delta Airlines, writes: “It just doesn’t make sense to remove the system responsible for the safe operation of our skies from the safety oversight of the FAA. The FAA is the gold standard against which every other nation’s airspace is measured. Do we have more work to do to improve the efficiency of our nation’s airspace? Yes. Is privatizing the answer? No.”

With a March 31st deadline looming to reauthorize funding for the FAA, Congress must either pass a new bill or extend the current legislation. This must-act scenario is like blood in the water to the privatization sharks that see an opportunity to reap even greater profits out of America’s skies.

Call (202-224-3121) and write your member of Congress and let them know that corporatizing America’s air traffic control system is a bad deal for the flying public.

For more information see stopairtrafficprivatization.com.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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