Donald Trump’s air traffic control plans worry private pilots, small airports

Advocates for Colorado’s multibillion-dollar noncommercial aviation industry are warning that President Donald Trump’s plan to privatize and modernize the nation’s air-traffic control system could make it more expensive for the state’s private and business aviators to take to the skies.

The anxiety centers on the potential addition of user fees and how they would impact general aviation — which generally covers the entire community of noncommercial pilots who fly everything from single-engine Cessnas to small jets.

The proposal, opponents say, could mean those aviators would have to pay for basic services that are now free, such as talking to air-traffic controllers, filing flight plans and getting weather reports. Colorado pilots groups, small airports and the Colorado Department of Transportation’s aeronautics office oppose the plan.

“I think it might well kill much of general aviation — what I call the small business and recreation (users),” said Gary Tobey, president of the Colorado Pilots Association, which promotes the interests of the state’s pilot community. “The United States of America has the best, most-free aviation system in the world, and it’s easy to casually think up ways to improve it. But this is not casual. This is something that is to the advantage of airlines.”

Trump’s proposal calls for removing air-traffic control from the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration and placing it in the hands of a nonprofit funded entirely by user fees and overseen by a board of stakeholders, from the country’s largest air carriers to airports and private-pilot groups. The plan is similar to one set forth by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., which failed to gain traction in Congress last year.

“Our air-traffic control system was designed when roughly 100,000 people flew at our airports each year,” Trump said Monday at a news conference announcing his administration’s plan . “We are now approaching 1 billion passengers annually. The current system cannot keep up — hasn’t been able to keep up.”

(Read this Washington Post explainer of the plan.)

Supporters of the plan include the airline industry, which has been pushing for decades for privatization so they can get greater control over the system. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association backed Shuster’s bill, generally supporting any kind of changes to what it calls the status quo, but says it still needs to review Trump’s plans.

Colorado’s U.S. senators — Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet — say they are open to all proposals to modernize the U.S. aviation system. But both say any plans need to account for all airspace users, from commercial passengers to private pilots.

In Colorado, general aviation creates a fraction of the economic output of commercial aviation but is growing. CDOT says general-aviation airports contributed $2.4 billion in 2013, up from $1.9 billion in 2008. By contrast, commercial aviation airports in the state generated about $34 billion in 2013, up from about $30 billion in 2008.

View from the control tower of Front Range Airport in Watkins on March 28, 2012.

Denver Post file

View from the control tower of Front Range Airport in Watkins on March 28, 2012.

General aviation is already an expensive endeavor. If the sector incurs more fees as a result of the FAA overhaul, experts say, some pilots might not take to the skies. Currently, private and business pilots indirectly pay for air-traffic control through fuel taxes and other FAA fees.

“The challenge, I think, when you’re looking at general aviation, is most of these folks — they don’t have a lot of money,” said David Ruppel, director of Front Range Airport, a general-aviation airport in Watkins. “They are operating on a shoestring. When you add additional costs into that operation, you are going to cut out a good portion of those people. That means we’ve damaged our general-aviation community.”

Objections to the FAA proposal extend beyond individual airports and pilots groups. The CDOT-housed Colorado Aeronautical Board, which oversees commercial and general aviation across the state, generally opposes Trump’s plans, as do the Colorado Airport Operators Association, Colorado Pilots Association and Colorado Aviation Business Association.

“The (aeronautical) board’s position is consistent with and was informed by similar opposition expressed by major aviation groups in Colorado,” said David Ulane, the state aeronautics director.

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