The Federal Aviation Administration operates the largest and safest aviation system in the world. How large? Of the 32.9 million air carrier departures worldwide in 2015, the U.S. had the most with 8.7 million. China was a distant second. Of an estimated 370,000 general-aviation aircraft worldwide flying an estimated 35 million flight hours, more than half those aircraft and hours are flown in the U.S.
How safe? There hasn’t been a fatal U.S. air carrier accident since 2015. As for general aviation, the number of fatal accidents and the fatal accident rate per 100,000 hours continue to drop. 2013 data (the latest available) shows 205 fatal accidents, and the fatal accident rate fell below one per 100,000 flight hours—the lowest in the world—for the first time.
The air traffic control function of the FAA plays a large part in this impressive record. Its 14,000 controllers at 479 airport control towers and in 218 en-route and approach-control facilities control more than 5 million square miles of U.S. airspace. Because the Federal Aviation Regulations require a jump pilot to contact air traffic control prior to every jump, those controllers handle 429 jump planes flying more than 117,000 hours and 228,000 loads annually in the U.S.
Recently, the Trump administration joined some in Congress to propose a wholesale change to our nation’s air traffic control system. They want to end ATC as a government function and restructure it as a corporation. The new ATC, Inc., would have a board of directors weighted toward airline interests. No wonder the airlines support the concept! Yet all of the general aviation community is opposed: the aircraft owners and pilots, the flight schools and fixed-base operators, the businesses that use aviation, the manufacturers of airplanes … and USPA.
The concerns are real. A corporate ATC would dispose of the FAA’s policy of “first come, first served,” which treats all system users alike. General aviation flights, including jump flights, could be denied access to certain airports and airspace in favor of airline efficiency. Then there is the question of cost. Currently, federal excise taxes on passengers, cargo and fuel fund 76 percent of FAA operations (including ATC), and U.S. taxpayers fund the other 24 percent. Jump operators pay through fuel taxes, with turbine operators paying 21.8 cents per gallon for jet fuel and piston operators paying 19.3 cents per gallon for avgas. But experts expect a corporate ATC to impose direct user fees on all who use the ATC system, including jump operators. One recent suggestion was a $100 per takeoff fee on all turbine operators. If that came to pass, a busy turbine jump plane might pay $3,500 per day. Of course, skydivers would see the cost of jump tickets go up accordingly. Once imposed, a user fee never goes down or away; it only goes up.
We asked the views of our skydiving friends in those countries that corporatized their ATC systems. From Australia: “I hope for USPA’s sake it doesn’t go private as I can only see … more fees.” From New Zealand: “Yes, it has increased costs for all but [also] created an arrogant organization that … can make money.” From Canada: “Charges [for jump planes] are based on where you are and what you are flying … a flat annual fee of $71.40 for a Cessna; a Piper Navajo pays $238.35 per year; a Twin Otter operating with a control tower will attract a daily fee of $84.”
USPA has joined other general aviation groups to fight for ATC’s status quo. You can read the joint letter in “Five-Minute Call” on page 22 of this issue.