NBAA Comes Under Fire in ATC Battle

 - August 23, 2017, 12:16 PM

An airline passenger rights organization has teamed with a taxpayers advocacy group to take aim at NBAA for its opposition to a proposal to create an independent organization to run the U.S. air traffic control system. The groups, National Taxpayers Union and Travelers United, said flying in the U.S. can become safer and more efficient through ATC modernization and contended that “NBAA—a group claiming to speak for corporate and private jet owners—is leading the charge against this much-needed reform.” The groups added: “It’s time to ground NBAA’s flight from reality.”

Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, noted that ATC is still using “WWII-era radar-and-paper-strips” and claimed that business aircraft pay only 0.4 percent of the costs of the system while using 10 percent. Airline travelers, he added, “typically shell out more than 20 percent in taxes, fees and government charges on an airline ticket.”

Pete Sepp, president of National Taxpayers Union, meanwhile, added, “Rather than work toward a future that benefits everyone, NBAA is clinging to the past.”

The claims, which effectively characterize NBAA as against modernization, are among a number aimed at opponents to the House ATC reform proposal as backers try to drum up support to bring it to the House floor for a vote.

But NBAA said the claims confuse modernization with ATC privatization. NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen told AIN that reform backers have pushed the message “that somehow privatization and modernization are connected. They are not.”

Bolen added that, looking back over years, “the reality is…the general aviation community, including NBAA, has been very much at the forefront of making NextGen a reality. GA has made modernization a top priority for several years.”

He also reiterated progress being made by the FAA in NextGen technologies and said GA has taken advantage of the NextGen infrastructure. “We were early adopters of GPS,” he said, adding that as a percentage of the fleet, the community is “vastly ahead” of the commercial airlines on equipage. The challenge facing NextGen, he added, is airline equipage, yet the airlines “continue to push this idea of taking over the ATC system.”

Bolen also has been expressing that message in opinion pieces: “Everyone agrees on the need to modernize, including the thousands of entrepreneurs and companies that use aircraft as an essential business tool, which in turn supports more than a million jobs and $200 billion in economic activity,” he wrote.

Efforts to pit ATC reform opponents as against modernization “distract from the real motive, which is to promote ATC privatization, a risky scheme long pushed by the big airlines,” Bolen added in another opinion piece. “Given that ATC privatization is really what’s at the heart of the matter, let’s get the facts on the table when it comes to this concept. Simply put, the idea amounts to a wholesale giveaway of the public’s aviation system.”

The airline passengers and taxpayer organizations, however, further pointed to “broad and deep” support for ATC reform, and said that it is difficult to understand NBAA’s opposition to the proposal because, they say, it answers the concerns of the business aviation community. They cited an exemption of user fees and, “for the first time ever,” guaranteed access to the National Airspace System.

They also said that the current system is hampering access. “NBAA deliberately distorts these facts out of fear that someday, somehow, Congress might decide to end business aviation’s seemingly unfair subsidy for using the ATC system,” the groups contend.

But Bolen called statements about business aviation’s contribution to the system misleading and said the tax system has worked; and Congress has the discretion to adjust taxes up or down as needed.

He also noted in a separate opinion piece that critics overlook “the fact that a number of government studies have shown that the users of these smaller aircraft pay equitably for their use of the aviation system.”

The reform effort, Bolen added, is really about a “power grab” and control over the ATC system.

The joint statement by the advocacy groups is the latest in a contentious battle over the ATC organization debate that has carried into the August recess. House supporters fell shy of the requisite votes to bring the bill to the floor before the recess and have engaged in a full-scale lobbying effort to change minds during the break. Opponents, meanwhile, have used the time to try to shore up opposition among the public and on Capitol Hill.