The decision by President Trump to meet with airline executives this week probably put them on cloud 9. Alone with the president, unrestrained in their ability to complain about so-called competition, the airline execs likely provided a laundry list of complaints and wish-lists of things they dreamed of.
Unfortunately, the president met with only one segment of the industry-- and that could spell doom for general aviation. Let's remember, general aviation (defined as all aviation that is not airlines or military) contributed $219 billion dollars to the U.S. economy and more than a million jobs last year. (source: GAMA)
At the top of the list, no doubt, is the airlines favorite pet project: the privatization of air traffic control. Some republicans in Congress have been pushing to spin off ATC from the FAA into a non-profit, private corporation. Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA) is the big backer of privatization. The argument goes that the Congress cannot properly fund ATC- and that FAA modernization has been too slow- so let's turn it over to a private entity. There's little evidence that that would result in some magically improved system.
General aviation groups fear that any such move would lead to the airlines having out-sized control over the new entity and impose fees and restrictions on GA. (In fact the airlines are demanding seats on the board of any private entity) The fact is any such move would be the largest transfer of government property to the private sector in history and would be a total abrogation of Congress's responsibility to fund the national airspace system.
Make no mistake about it, the airlines naked power grab is all about having the airspace largely to themselves and freezing out new, innovative competition,
The president repeated the airlines key talking point that ticket taxes (about 7.5%) are too high and need to be lowered. But doing that, no doubt, will lead to "user fees" for general aviation. Currently, the FAA is funded through a fuel tax that everyone pays. User fees- a tax by any other name- could cripple GA. Also, do you really think that the airlines would pass along savings to you, the flying public? If you believe that, I have a bag peanuts to give you.
It's easy to say this is a problem of the 1%-- rich people use private planes, right?
But who builds them? Those same American jobs the president has vowed to protect. Who flies the planes? Highly trained pilots who are not rich by any measure. Who maintains them? Mechanics trained at vocational schools republicans would like to expand. More than one million people who are squarely in the middle class will have jobs threatened by increasing the cost of business through user fees and ATC privatization.
The airlines also want Mr. Trump to scuttle the Obama Administration deal allowing Norwegian Air to conduct international flights in the U.S. But it appears the president won't do that-- citing the American jobs that deal is creating.
Both Mr. Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have been quiet on the subject of ATC privatization. With this administration you can't read much into that and it should be a concern that it hasn't been outright rejected.
Donald Trump is obviously a "bigly" user of private planes-- jets baring his name flew across the country during the election. But the aviation community should not mistake that for supporting their cause.
For the president to get a full picture of the economic importance of aviation, he should meet with all stakeholders-- and not just the handful of executives who want to control the system for themselves.