De-ja vu, All Over Again 

Howard Deevers 


The opinions expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of Arizona Pilots Association or any other aviation association.


It was like hearing an echo, the same words, with a few more added, but from a different President.

Trump said: The nation’s air traffic control system was designed when far fewer people flew. Then he called the system, “Ancient, broken, antiquated, and horrible, stuck painfully in the past.”

The echo was there. Any time the government wants to change something, they claim that it is “broken.” Not just aviation; witness health care. We heard from other presidents that it was “broken.” After a black-out due to a powerline failure, the nation’s grid was said to be “crumbling.”

This time some more adjectives were added to broken: ancient, antiquated, and horrible.
Going back several Presidents, the words seem to be mostly the same, and it does not make any difference what party you or I voted for. The Clinton administration proposed user fees, the Bush administration proposed user fees, and the Obama administration proposed user fees. Each one had its own flavor, but the bottom line was the same.

General Aviation, through organizations like APA , AOPA, EAA, and others, were able to lobby Congress to oppose user fees. The administrations have finally figured out that user fees are not going to be passed by Congress, so let’s go a different route. If the government “privatizes” ATC, then Congress won’t feel the heat from the public, such as general aviation fliers.


It is really hard not to get emotional about this issue. I have been hearing about user fees almost before the ink was dry on my private pilot certificate. Emotions overflowed after this last Presidential election, and we saw civil unrest all over the country. It didn’t help.

General Aviation is a small group in the overall picture. We are not going to block traffic at airports or try to do other stupid things to get attention. Are we going to win this battle one more time? Only time will tell.

First we must understand that the system is not broken. The system we use today evolved over many years, and it still is evolving. Many of the instrument approach systems were developed during the Berlin Air Lift, were revised over time, and still work today. They may be old, but they are not broken. Newer navigations systems have become common since that time, and are still being developed such as GPS navigation. Of course, GPS did not exist at all during the Berlin Air Lift. ADS-B was to be our most important system in aviation, and was called “The Next Generation of Air Traffic Control (NextGen),” and it is not even fully in effect until the year 2020.

You can be sure that this is NOT about fixing a “broken” ATC. This is about money. Air Traffic Control is a complicated and very complex system. It also has a lot of legal issues attached to it. For example: did you know that the various Centers (ARTCC) across the country actually co-operate with each other under a legal document agreed to by each party? The areas agreed to by the Centers are not just random lines on a map (in this case a Sectional, or En Route Chart). The FAA managers of these areas meet to discuss how and where air traffic will be handed from one Center to another, and a letter of agreement is drawn up.


The Approach Control that operates within the ARTCC is also by letter of agreement. The Phoenix Approach Control took over the airspace over PRC, FLG, SEZ, and P52 in an effort to improve service and safety. For that to happen, many meetings and discussions had to take place first. All pilots that fly in these Arizona airspaces enjoy the fruits of those labors. How can you “fix” something that constantly works to make its self better?

What about the money? The system of fuel taxes that we have been paying for many years works just fine. The bigger planes that use more fuel, pay more taxes into the system. The Piper Cub won’t pay much in tax, but will use much less of the services than the bigger planes. It works out about right for all. To replace that simple system by “privatizing” the ATC will require a new system to collect the money. That new system is not likely to be more efficient than the present system, and probably will cost more to administer, thus being even more expensive.

Aviation is a transportation system, so was the railroad system. Passenger rail service went to a private organization in 1971. AMTRAK has had to fight for everything they need every year since that time.

The nation’s highway system was financed by taxes on fuel. Have you ever driven behind a truck that had the dollars in taxes it paid a year ago painted on the back of the truck? Sure, they paid a lot of taxes, but they use the highways a lot more than a family car that travels mostly around the town they live in. By the way, in the end, all taxes paid by corporations are included in the price of the products you buy; consumers end up paying all taxes. Now we are hearing that those taxes can’t fix the roads and bridges that were built 50 or 60 years ago. So, what is next? Privatize the highway system? Can you imagine the interstates being managed by a private corporation run by the commercial trucking industry? It is being talked about, but I doubt that the public will go for that.


Are we “stuck in the past?” Not really. After all, we do have “NextGen” ATC that will, or is already, costing General Aviation lots of money to equip the fleet. What happens after NextGen? Do we have a “NextGen II?” I’m not thinking that this is the end of ATC. Maybe it is just another evolution. After all, aviation is just a little over 100 years old and has constantly changed and evolved over that time. The United States has the safest and most efficient air traffic system in the world. When our Government talks about “fixing” that, it is time to worry.

On my way back to Marana, Arizona, I was handed off to Tucson Approach Control. The woman controller was busy helping an airline going east out of Tucson. The area was ripe with the summer storms that develop in the afternoon. That controller was doing a great job of helping the plane avoid nasty weather. After reporting that I had Marana, the controller said “frequency change approved.” I responded in the usual proper way, then added: “As my final sign off, ATC is not broken.” The controller got it, and gave me a laugh, and a “thanks.” I know we will never get the airlines to sign off with a slogan like that, but maybe if General Aviation pilots did that enough, it would catch on. (Only my opinion, of course.)

Want to know more about Air Traffic Control, NextGen, proper communications, iPad navigation, or many other subjects? Check the Arizona Pilots Association website, and come to a safety seminar near you. If you have a subject suggestion on something we have not covered, contact us. We can make presentations for you. And, don’t forget to “bring your wingman.”

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