Threat to our Airspace
Gearing Up | Aug 01, 2017
Threat to our Airspace

Ed Scott

With proposed air-traffic-control privatization, skydiving—and indeed all of general aviation—is facing the gravest threat to its longevity and future than ever before. If the 21st Century AIRR Act, otherwise known as H.R. 2997, goes through the U.S. Congress and the president signs it into law, it would carve the ATC function out of the Federal Aviation Administration and hand it to a new private corporation funded by new aviation user fees. (As written, the bill exempts general aviation from user fees, but any future Congress could change that.)

Skydiving has faced a number of regulatory threats over the years. In 1973, the airlines pressured the FAA to restrict skydiving to a few approved “columns of air.” USPA shot the proposal down. In 1979, the FAA proposed lowering positive-control airspace from 18,000 to 10,000 feet, which would then have been the common maximum jump altitude. USPA joined other general aviation groups in defeating that idea. In 1993, the Internal Revenue Service decided that jump operators needed to pay the same 10 percent federal passenger tax on jump tickets as the airlines paid. USPA successfully lobbied against jump flight taxes in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.

Our nation’s airspace is a national resource. It belongs to every American. And though vast, the FAA uses its regulatory authority to divvy the airspace into segments for various users who meet certain rules and equipage requirements. The airspace left for use under visual flight rules (including skydiving) is still immense, and skydiving is able to enjoy relatively unfettered access nationwide. Despite segmentation and many competing users, the FAA manages it all under a first-come, first-served air-traffic-control policy, with controllers handling traffi c based on the order in which pilots contact ATC. That means that they give no user priority and that they handle jump planes in sequence with other aircraft.

That would all change with ATC privatization, the premise of which is that ATC should run like a business and not like a government service. That ignores what everyone concedes: The U.S. ATC system is already the largest, busiest and safest in the world. (How do you improve upon that?) And it’s well into a modernization eff ort to continue its premier status. It does all this while accommodating users equally. A corporatized ATC, on the other hand, would favor customers who enjoy premium services and give them priority handling over less favored customers. In this case, the priority customer is the airlines, who strongly support the bill. Do you think the new ATC corporation would continue to serve all users on a first-come, first-served basis? Do you think that general aviation users who are paying no user fees would receive equitable service?

That’s the threat: If Congress eliminates a government service that allocates a national resource fairly for all and hands it to a business, that business will serve its wealthiest customers first. DZs could be pushed farther away from large airports and busy air routes to preserve airspace for prime customers. Busy controllers could give priority handling to the airlines, while jump pilots and other general aviation pilots would be forced to level off and hold until air traffic subsides. That means fewer loads and higher-priced jump tickets. USPA has joined more than 30 other general aviation groups in imploring its members to urge Congress to leave the ATC system with the FAA, an agency that has proven it can run the largest, busiest and safest ATC system in the world. Have you done your part?

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