Even with the Trump Administration’s backing, the latest congressional push to separate air traffic control from the FAA is considered a long shot by business and general aviation groups, but the ramifications have them taking the issue very seriously. “What’s going on in the White House and what’s going on in reauthorization is deeply concerning, perhaps more so than ever,” NATA president Marty Hiller told attendees at the NATA 2017 Business Aviation Conference on June 7. “It could change the landscape of general aviation for a very, very long time.”
The new bill being crafted might not have much more chance of succeeding than last year’s bill, which died in the House. Opposition from disparate groups, including Democrats, Republicans representing rural areas and non-airline operators stalled that effort.
The key question is if President Trump’s choice of ATC reform as a centerpiece to an infrastructure improvement push tilts the scales in favor of passage. “I’m not so sure it does,” said Joel Bacon, the executive v-p of federal and public affairs for the American Association of Airport Executives.
Among the many issues is any ATC reform bill’s funding structure, which swaps excise taxes for user fees and thus would create a $6.5 billion annual hole in Treasury revenue. “The [congressional] tax writers, who are trying to do a massive tax package and frankly don’t care about this issue because they’re working on big things, would have to fill that hole before a bill goes to the floor,” Bacon said. “I think that’s a big hurdle.”
Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro is concerned that airlines could convince the Trump administration that part of the solution is to handle rural-access concerns by segregating traffic. “Airlines may build a case that it’s not safe for general aviation to be operating in congested airspace and at hub airports,” he told NATA attendees. “The administration could say, 'You want rural access? We’re going to make your wish come true. Stay out of the big cities.’”
President Trump’s commitment is a “wild card” in the process, Zuccaro added. “If he decides he can’t fail on this, it’s a major concern.”
NBAA COO Steve Brown said that, despite having “the facts on our side, we still have to lobby this hard.” The worst-case scenario, he said, is that an issue, such as a system breakdown that cripples airline traffic, could be used to paint the current system as in need of major reform. “We’ve got to work it hard because of the unanticipated things that could happen,” Brown noted.