Aviation Trends

Have Cell Phone Will Travel… On Private Jet Charter, Naturally.

The Digital Age for Air Travel Has Arrived. Buying a Ticket (even an e-ticket) is So Old School.

Today you can simply go to an app on your cell phone and book a seat on a private jet or charter the entire jet for a flight, if you like. It’s all part of the digital explosion that links service providers with frequent fliers any time of day, any day of the year.

Before you go downloading the apps – these services are not for everyone, many require hefty membership fees and the price of flying on a private jet is usually much more than a first class airline ticket. The advantages, of course, are speed, privacy and convenience. Flying privately eliminates long security lines, airport traffic delays – even the possibility of lost or stolen luggage.

Private jets give you door-to-door service with access to thousands more airports across the world than commercial airlines fly to. All you have to do is find out which service offers the best deal for you and your needs.

So Who Are You Gonna Call?

The number of air  has ballooned in the past several years.  No two have the same pricing structure or membership costs.  Most do not own or operate aircraft, but provide access to those who do. Here are some of the most notable charter booking services, their websites and a comparison of their offerings:

JetSuite is a California-based private jet charter company, which does not require private membership, though you can request SuiteKey membership if you like with a pre-paid account. Their fleet consists of Embraer Phenom 100s and Cessna Citations. Unlike many Jet charter companies, they offer guaranteed online pricing to more than 2,000 airports. They also offer WiFi-enabled flights throughout North America. Jet Suite offers customized itineraries for those in their membership program as well as empty leg flights with special “next-day” deals. What’s an empty leg? It’s the transport leg the aircraft needs to fly to begin or end a charter flight. Rather than fly the jet empty, you  can hitch a ride, often for a fraction of the operating cost of the charter flight. Empty-leg deals are the most economical because you’re basically flying to a destination the jet charter has to bring the jet to anyway. JetSuite advertises seats starting at $99.

JetMe is the Priceline of charter jet online services. Their non-member app allows you to name your own price. Of course, they will provide suggested prices, too. Once you pick your price range, JetMe puts you in contact with the charter broker or operator to work out the final pricing with them. How likely are you to get the flight you want for the price you bid? That depends on how low the bid. The lower the big, the lower your chances of snagging a jet.

Fly anywhere, anytime, All is takes is an app, a membership fee and a healthy bank account.

Fly anywhere, anytime,
All it takes is an app, a membership fee and a
healthy bank account.

JetSmarter is a membership traveler service that allows users to book a private jet from a mobile app. JetSmarter claims to have access to the largest private jet marketplace in the world – 3,000 aircraft according to founder Sergey Petrossov. Your choice of aircraft ranges from King Air turboprops to Boeing 767s.

Membership is roughly $3,000 to join and around $9,000 per year. You can book a whole jet to take you just about anywhere. You can also select a service they call JetShuttle, which allows you to search for a flight that is already scheduled and may have spare seats available. The app becomes most economical when you book a seat on an empty leg.

Beacon was centered in the Northeast with a one-time $1,000 initiation fee and a $2,000 a month usage fee. Despite its white glove services, Beacon fell prey to regulatory and overhead costs it could not overcome. Beacon closed shop in April 2016. We mention it only to remind you that not all of these services succeed.  They are subject to regulations and to costs, which could cripple their chances of success.

BlackJet is a Florida-based service that is actually backed by original backers of Uber. The service requires a $5000 annual membership fee but it does allow you to purchase a seat rather than the entire plane. Of course, that seat could run you $6000 but that’s still cheaper than a whole plane. In the past several months, BlackJet has been grounded and restarted again. Much of this is due to financing problems. Whether it survives or goes the way of Beacon remains to be seen.

Blue Star Jets is a booking service that claims access to over 5,000 planes worldwide and operates in an Uber-fashion. They offer one-click reservations and a 24/7 customer service organization – they say they can book you anywhere across the globe in just 15 minutes.

imgresPrivateFly lets users see competitive quotes and aircraft, so they can comparison shop and the ability to choose both aircraft, as well as airports. PrivateFly claims to be a global booking service and the fastest growing private aviation company in Europe. The company claims they can get you in the air within one hour.

SkyJet is a New York based charter service that charges by the hour. About $3000 for a light jet, $4000 to $4500 for a mid-size jet and about $7000 for a large cabin jet. SkyJet does not offer long-term commitments and has been known to provide empty-leg seats.

Surf Air is a California based service that owns its own fleet of aircraft. You can purchase unlimited flights from $1950 a month – fly as much as you want but must make two reservations at a time.  Surf Air also provides Group Memberships for companies. Some days they launch as many 90 flights. Surf Air operates single-engine Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and is mostly a West Coast based operator.

Victor is booking service that is Uber-like, but worldwide. Use its one-touch mobile booking app, and as many as 7,000 jets are at your disposal. They claim they can get you airborne in a couple of hours. You also get real-time pricing and price comparisons to help you make an informed decision. Victor is based in London and allows you to book any size aircraft from a turboprop to a full-size Boeing or Airbus.

Wheels Up is a private aviation start-up that sells memberships and on-demand flights. It has two kinds of membership programs: Individual/Family and Corporate. Individual Family members pay an initiation fee of about $17,500 and fly at an hourly rate of about $4000 an hour.  Corporate membership starts at around $30,000. Wheels Up guarantees pricing and flies King Air 350 and Cessna Citation Excel aircraft.

Note: You should be aware that with some booking services, there may be addition fees that are not included in the price, such as airport fees or landing fees, which are separate from your negotiated price. Best to read the fine print before boarding.

The Last Word: Choose Your Options Wisely.

You can still choose to go direct to tried and true jet charter companies like NetJets and Avjet for your private aircraft needs. They tend to have programs that essentially make you a fractional owner in their fleet.  They, too, offer online and phone booking, but you are flying them exclusively. Their prices are usually fixed and you will be booking their aircraft, not just a seat.

In the end, it comes down to need, budget and availability. Choosing a mobile booking service may be right for you, becoming part of a jet charter service may serve your needs better. The truth is there are lots of options out there – more than we have covered here.  Some of them are global, some are regional. Do your homework and crunch your numbers and you can turn your cell phone into your own personal airline. Otherwise, do what the remaining 99% of us do, book a flight, drive to the airport and grit your teeth.

Should I stay or should I go? There’s a weather app for that!

The single most important go- no-go factor for any pilot is weather. Weather determines if a pilot should leave the ground at all, and when in the air, if he or she should get back on the ground in a hurry. Every pilot is taught that they should call Flight Services and talk to a briefer before launching in questionable weather conditions; and in the case of long, cross-country flying, file a flight plan with Flight Services.

Today, there are a plethora of weather service sources a pilot can refer to when planning a flight. The internet is a treasure trove of weather information from the FAA (Federal Aviation Adminsitration), NOAA/NWS (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ National Weather Service), AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and more. All are fine while on the ground in the comfort and safety of one’s den. But almost all have disclaimers stating that using online weather information is not a replacement for that call to a briefer at Flight Services.

Weather, of course, can be unpredictable. Many a pilot has done his or her due diligence and launched into a perfectly blue sky with calm winds at the surface, manageable winds aloft and 20 nautical miles of visibility only to find a surprise thunderstorm.

Apps, Apps everywhere.

In the past several years a revolutionGarmin Pilot App has taken place in aviation cockpits around the globe. They have gone digital, both inside the panel with glass instruments or outside the panel with hand held devices that provide everything from approach plates to night vision. Of course, part of that revolution includes weather apps of different varieties that give pilots en route weather information – not from Flight Watch, not through VOR stations – but from satellites and almost in real time. Here are just some the many weather apps available for mobile devices, their similarities and their differences:

  1. WSI Pilotbrief Optima (Free in iTunesThis iPad app allows users access to weather and NOTAMs (notices to airmen) information when planning a flight. Features include high-definition weather layers, radar, satellite infrared, Vertically Integrated Liquid (VIL), and EchoTop mosaics; graphic METARs and 10-day planning forecasts.
  2. Aviation weather by GADsoftware ($4.99 in Google Play) – This smartphone app shows maps with all reporting stations listed, and coded by VFR/IFR conditions. The default map in the 30-day free trial is of the Northeast centered on Boston, but you can add other locations.
  3. AccuWeather (Basic version free on iTunes and Google Play) Members rave about this smartphone and tablet app for its push notifications for severe weather alerts, precise weather maps, forecasts for 2.7 million locations around the world, and the ability to save forecasts for an unlimited number of locations.
  4. MyRadar Weather Radar (Basic version free in iTunes and Google Play) This smartphone and tablet app displays animated weather radar at a current location. For $1.99, the pro version removes all ads. For $2.99, the app will include hurricane coverage. It also offers weather warnings and alerts.
  5. AeroWeather (Lite version, free; Pro version, $3.99 in iTunes) The lite version of this iPhone/iPad app provides raw and decoded METAR/TAF data, and allows users to search stations from a built-in database or find them based on location. The weather comes from the National Weather Service database. The Pro version does all of the above plus provides NOTAMs, runway data, moon data and information from AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System), plus it filters airport identifiers and information.
  6. RadarScope ($9.99) This app can display 155 radar sites in the U.S.and allows you to choose between base and composite reflectivity. This app is more for weather geeks than the average aviation user and depends less on graphics and more data.
  7. SkewTLogPro ($6.99)  The app offers temperature/dew point, wind direction and wind speed at different altitudes and can reveal information about cloud bases, tops, icing, turbulence and more. It also allows you to quick scan Skew T diagrams (meteorological graphics that take some training to read) at any location in the U.S.

The Big Three

Aviation Weather on iPadThe three dominant GPS Navigation apps for pilots have been ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot and WingX. All three provide more than weather, but their weather apps are quite robust and allow you to overlay your flight plan so you can see what weather issues are in your path. This gives all three a level of situation awareness that can really be useful at altitude and while en route to your destination. These apps include graphic versions of METAR s and icing forecasts. What sets them apart is that all three allow you to get formal DUAT/DUATS weather briefings right in the app – no need to call Flight Services and talk to a briefer. These apps are official. They also include weather data link, either through XM or ADS-B. All three provide a free trial.

The Improvements keep on coming.

The "Aviation Weather at a GlanceTM" app provides a easy to understand graphical presentation of weather at departure, enroute and at the destination - at the present and in the future. (PRNewsFoto/wx24 Pilot)

The “Aviation Weather at a GlanceTM” app provides a easy to understand graphical presentation of weather at departure, enroute and at the destination – at the present and in the future. (PRNewsFoto/wx24 Pilot)

One of the issues with most aviation weather apps is that they present report data (METARS, TAFs, Pilot Reports (or PIREPS) in raw form or decoded and not all in one place. A new app created by 1 Echo Charlie, LLC is changing all that. It is called wx24 Pilot. Unlike other aviation apps, which display text versions of weather data, wx24 Pilot interprets the same data and presents it graphically.

The illustrated weather data is presented on screen so you don’t have to go scrolling and scrambling around to put together a composite idea of what the weather around you looks like . You can quickly see the current and the forecast weather situation that lies ahead of you along your route and at your destination. The graphic weather depictions allow you to “see” the weather rather than decipher it. Sizing up the weather situation takes seconds instead of minutes and in aviation that could mean the difference between flying into danger and having enough time to recognize it and avoid it.

Another unique safety feature of wx24 Pilot is you can input your personal minimums and the app will quickly allow you to see if you are approaching them or about to exceed them. The app presents your en route weather situation from point of departure to destination point with weather information at key points along the way.

You can purchase wx24 Pilot by the month for $1.99, for six months for $7.99 or for 1 year for $11.99.

Conclusion

The digital revolution in aviation is making flying safer by putting more and more critical information at our fingertips in our cockpits and it is doing it at lower and lower cost to the pilot. While all this is valuable for sure, eyeballs out the window are just as critical to safe flying. A happy medium between our heads in the clouds and are eyes on our handheld screens could be the best prescription for keeping us all safe.

Is Honda Jet the VLJ (Very Light Jet) Aviation Has Been Waiting For?

In the summer of 2007, there were two things at Air Venture creating a buzz. One was the emergence of many new “inexpensive,” easy-to-fly Light Sport aircraft that promised to transform General Aviation, entice new pilots into aviation and bring cost-weary older pilots back into the fold. The other news-maker was the presence of VLJs or Very Light Jets like the Cirrus Vision Jet and the Eclipse 500, which were going to transform the way people fly.

That was almost nine years ago! A lot has changed since.

In case you forgot exactly what a VLJ is, here is a brief definition: these are jet aircraft costing less than $5 million (originally less than $2M), weigh under 10,000 pounds and capable of taking off from runways as short as 3000 feet – making the majority of General Aviation airports available to them for point-to-point travel. When compared to the limitations of commercial airline routes that utilize only thirty or so major airports, going point-to- point in a VLJ would be very attractive indeed.

The idea of the Very Light Jet was first promulgated by Eclipse Jet in the late 1990s when the economy was steaming along and it seemed the increasing pool of new millionaires would never end. Who better than the Nouveau riche to snatch up these new VLJ time machines for their own personal and business use?

In March ch 2008 article in Air & Space Magazine, jet propulsion expert and advocate Gerry Merill was predicting the age of private jetting was upon us.  Mr. Merill went so far as to say he believed a single- seat light jet could be sold for as little as $150,000 and 4-seater about the size of a Cirrus SR22 could be marketed for a price competitive with high-end piston-powered airplane. As far as the single-seat jet prediction is concerned, you can currently buy a Sonex JSX-2 for between $135,000 and $150,000, but that’s a self-build kit and not a production model. The prediction of $400,000 to $600,000 four-seat very light jets? That ain’t happening.

The Sonex Jet meets the VLJ criteria but in very personal way -- as a kit plane.

The Sonex Jet meets the VLJ criteria but in very personal way – as a kit plane

Why aren’t the skies filled with VLJs?

The simple answer should sound familiar, “The economy, stupid!” By the summer of Air Venture 2008, signs of the coming economic collapse were beginning to be felt.  A year later the Great Recession was in full force crushing global economies like a worldwide tsunami. Corporate Jet usage was under attack and the private jet market, along with the funding for VLJs, was rapidly vanishing.

Eclipse Jet, at the vanguard of the VLJ charge in the late 1990s with the promise of a light jet by 2003 for less than $1.5 million, filed for bankruptcy and closed shop by February 2009. Cirrus announced plans for their VLJ in June 2007, got a prototype in the air by July 2008 but never went into production.

Cessna forged on with its Mustang. Embraer continued with its Phenom series. But Diamond and Piper put their VLJs on the back burner. Then there was Honda, the little jet that wouldn’t be stopped – not even by a recession or grueling certification hurtles.

In the past few years, the general aviation market has rebounded as global economies recovered some from the Great Recession. Bombardier Jet, in its most recent 10-year forecast, indicated steady growth in the business jet market with more robust sales in the middle and lower ends of the market and sluggish sales in the upper, large cabin market. These predictions, however, do not include VLJs.

The VLJ that was 30 years in the making.

Up until Honda Jet, most of the players in the VLJ field were and continue to be established aircraft companies. Not so with Honda. Honda was a motorcycle builder, who became a car builder, who became a marine motor maker, who became a lawn mower maker, robots and more. The Honda philosophy is if you make it – and make it well enough – they will buy it. Honda’s desire to get into the aircraft business goes back to its founder, Soichiro Honda, who believed his company had the right “stuff” (engineering and manufacturing) to build aircraft.

The guy at Honda who had the right vision, however, didn’t come along until 1986 when Honda gave a young engineer named Michimassa Fujino the go ahead to start developing an aircraft. As with most Honda products, the emphasis was on getting it right, not making it quickly. They certainly didn’t rush to market, as the Honda Jet concept was first shown at Air Venture 2005 and the first production model didn’t appear until 2014.

Mr. Fujino’s jet is a departure from conventional wisdom. Its engine pods emerge from its wing tops and are not mounted from the sides of the back fuselage as has been the norm for biz-jets since Mr. Lear put his moniker on one in the 1960s. Dispelling concerns about disturbing airflow over the wings, Mr. Fujino stuck to his belief that his formula would work, which it does without sacrificing lift or creating excess drag – claiming a quieter and more comfortable passenger experience.

The Honda Jet seats up to four passengers with two pilots up front and is wider than competitors like Cessna Mustang. Its power plants are made in partnership with General Electric, which adds to its credibility. The design’s drawback at the moment seems to be a smidge shorter range than the average VLJ, and a price tag that is quite a bit higher by $1 million to $1.8 million. The Cessna Mustang, for example,  goes for about $3.5 million, the Honda for $4.5 million. What’s more, Cessna has responded to the increase in competition by offering reduced avionics packages. Honda Jet has the highest service ceiling in its class, upwards of FL40. That puts it well into airline territory. While the Honda Jet and its VLJ brethren will be sharing air space with airliners, the key advantage they have is that they will be able to land at smaller airports where airliners can’t.

What makes Honda’s VLJ exciting and worrisome at the same time?

While this kind of accessibility sounds fantastic to business types and those with enough money to make a VLJ a personal aircraft, it presents issues for smaller airports that don’t see much jet traffic on a regular basis, or on any basis at all for that matter. For one thing, these aircraft use Jet-A fuel, which many smaller air strips don’t have available. It will also mean faster aircraft in the traffic pattern of non-towered airports.

Then there is the matter of pilot training. You don’t just go from a piston single (even a Pilatus PC-12 turbo) to a jet without training. In fact, even if you do have jet time, you probably want to get familiar with whatever VLJ you choose, including the Honda.

What makes the Honda a threat to traditional aircraft manufacturers?

In the ensuing years between Eclipse Jet’s  Air Venture 2000 announcement of a VLJ for under a million dollars and now, the players that have succeeded in this market segment have been aircraft companies that know the costs always go up, hurtles never stop coming and announcement dates are never set in stone. Cessna and Embraer, both old hands at aircraft development, manufacture and delivery, have managed to stay the course and deliver while others could not.

Despite the many obstacles to certification and the fact that VLJ sales remained flat going into 2015, there has been a resurgence in the number of competitors coming into 2016. Cirrus has returned to the scene with their Vision Jet; Eclipse, too, has re-entered the market with their 550 model and, of course, Honda has finally emerged with a certified ship ready for deliveries.

Because Honda is not a traditional aircraft manufacturer, they’ll be the one to watch carefully. With over 100 orders to fill, they’ll be busy. Can they outstrip their older, more experienced brethren? More importantly, how will they do after the sale? The supply chain is just as important as the development and manufacture of the aircraft.

According to a Forbes article in December 2015, the now certified, trial-tested, FAA-certified Honda Jet is about to take its first deliveries (Honda has a respectable 100 orders for the little jet). What happens next depends largely on how well Honda Jets perform in the real world. Most other VLJs in the past have been plagued by system bugs and pilot inexperience issues. Honda could experience the same… or not.

Honda has one thing going for it – nearly thirty years of preparation. If they approach production, support and service with the same diligence and fervor they’ve shown in their other product categories, they will no doubt prove to be a formidable competitor in the aviation business. Only time will tell if Honda Jet will take off and rewrite the history of the VLJ market. From the looks of things, however, Honda is no rush to get anything wrong.

UberChopper and the coming age of helicopter ride sharing.

We live in a gee-whiz time when catching a ride is as easy as opening a cell phone app. Uber may not be as futuristic as “Beam me up, Scotty,” but it certainly has caused turbulence with the taxi industry. Now, Uber wants to transform how we get around in the air. Enter UberChopper, an exciting new way to request a helicopter taxi that is creating great interest and great concern at the same time.

Compared to air travel by jet, riding in a helicopter to get from point A to point B is not something the average American is used to doing. Truthfully, it probably won’t be commonplace for some time to come because vertical flight is far more expensive per hour than fixed-winged flight. Still, in certain American cities like Los Angeles and New York your chances of hopping a chopper to get to a weekend hideaway or to beat the traffic to the airport are much higher than elsewhere.

Uber has been experimenting with providing shared helicopter rides for a few years now. In 2013, it offered exclusive helicopter rides to New Yorkers wishing to get to their Hampton, Long Island retreats without having to battle the mind-numbing traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Uber again offered helicopter service during the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. They also partnered with helicopter flying services to ferry people at the Cannes Film Festival, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and most recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Uber’s efforts have been met with both resistance, as well as with success.

Not the first, but potentially the biggest.

The idea of using a helicopter as a taxi is not a new one. In the early 1950s, New York Airways was created to ferry people to various New York Airports. It operated through the late 70s, picking up passengers from the top of what was then called the Pan Am Building and flying them to various New York airports. The service was suspended in New York after a serious fatal accident in 1979.

More recently, the helicopter has become a jet setter’s taxi. In Los Angeles, many studio executives use helicopters to transport themselves from Malibu to studios in L.A. In Texas the helicopter is the Oil Executive’s mode of transportation for getting to drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

New York of late has given rise to a new helicopter phenomenon: the helicopter ride share. In the past two years, three companies have come into existence specializing in helicoptering groups of people from downtown New York to the Hamptons or to New York Area airports. They are Blade, Gotham Air and Uber. All of these services are set up for ride-shares for four to six passengers. Just like a shared taxi ride in Manhattan, the cost of the ride is divided by the passengers, thus bringing a flight that could cost upwards of $2000 down to mere hundreds per passenger.

Please Note: Unlike on-demand flights for fixed wing aircraft owners, the FAA has not ordered on-demand helicopter companies to cease and desist. The reason is that booking agents, like Uber, connect customers with helicopter charter companies that employ commercial-rated pilots. The problem with the fixed wing services was that they were connecting passengers with non-commercial-rated private pilots, which the FAA deems a safety problem.

Why Uber Could Become The Biggest Player.

UberChopper may never become as ubiquitous as street Uber, but for those living in the fast lane it might become as convenient.

Uber not only has a national presence but is gaining international recognition as well. Recently it partnered with aviation giant Airbus, to further expand on-demand helicopter services. That partner also known as the European Aerospace Consortium happens to make, among other things, helicopters.

The partnership between software app and aviation hardware was recently tested at the Sundance Film Festival. Airbus provided its H125 and H139 helicopters and Uber provided the helicopter pilots together with an affluent consumer base wishing to cut time and complication out of travelling to and from the Sundance festival.

Why would Airbus consider such an arrangement? Current economics. With oil prices plunging, oil and gas companies, which have been the mainstay helicopter client, have cut back on new helicopter orders. Hence, Airbus is looking to grow their market by looking for new ways their helicopters are used, and by whom.

How did the Airbus/Uber partnership fair at Sundance?

For the cost of $200 per person during the day, and $300 a person at night, a Sundance attendee could take a fifteen minute flight to the Festival beating the crowds and the traffic. For many it was worth the money to share a helicopter ride with several other Festival goers.

There was, however, a snag. People in the quiet countryside around the Festival began to complain about the noise. The Sheriff of Summit County ordered a halt to the flights claiming that the landing zone was illegal and that both Uber (and competing helicopter service Blade) needed permits.

A District Judge ruled those who sued the helicopter services did not have enough evidence that county zoning rules were being violated, or that permits were required. The solution was an alternate landing site agreeable to both UberChopper and local residents, and as they say, the show went on.

One last note about the viability of on-demand helicopter services.

Despite the compromises that were struck at Sundance, helicopter on-demand chopper services still face some challenges from localities, like Summit County. You may recall last year the townspeople of East Hampton and South Hampton on Long Island, sought to put a curfew on helicopter landings due to noise pollution issues. Residents along the West Side of Manhattan have been seeking to curb helicopter flights up and down the Hudson corridor for years now, claiming that noise is so constant, there is little peace 24/7.

Festivals like Sundance encourage on-demand helicopter service for a limited time. Operations like Blade and Gotham Air and now Uber in Manhattan represent a more permanent service. The battle lines between folks on the ground and folks who want ride share in the air, have not and will not, go away. Not soon at any rate. As long as Uber has an app and someone has an available helicopter /pilot, it looks like on-demand chopper service is here to stay.

General Aviation Dodges a Bullet

There is a growing push among airlines, labor unions and other aviation stakeholders to dramatically reshape how the nation’s airspace is controlled and who controls it.

Fortunately, the Senate has again deemed that the U.S. is not yet ready for the privatization of our airspace. In a move this week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has passed a bill that reauthorizes the FAA without privatization and user fees, but only for the short-term through the end of Fiscal Year 2017, so the immediate threat has been stopped but the issue is not dead.  The push to privatize the FAA and add user fees to the funding mix will likely reemerge – and each time it does, there seems to be more support behind it.

Support for ATC privatization is universal among airlines, except for Delta Airlines. “There is simply no compelling reason to change such a critical system that works so very well,” Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson wrote in testimony to the House Transportation Committee last month. “Indeed, this bill feels like an experiment. Our nation’s air traffic control system is too important—to public safety, economic growth and national security—and working too well for such an experiment to be prudent.”

The main criticism of the FAA is that its lethargic bureaucracy has been slow to modernize the U.S. airspace by implementing the new air traffic control system (NextGEN) which Congress authorized back in 2003. This criticism is valid, but clearly can be linked to inconsistent funding of the FAA from a dysfunctional Congress, which has resorted to short-term federal funding for the FAA 23 times in the past several years. Putting that issue aside, the FAA’s primary responsibility is to oversee the world’s largest, busiest and most congested airspace. In this regard, the FAA has done a great job statistically as U.S. aviation is the safest in the world.

Despite this fact, Senator Bill Schuster (R-PA.), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is drafting legislation which would turn over control of the nation’s airspace to a chartered, non-profit monopoly that would implement user fees to fund its operation and float bonds to build a new air traffic infrastructure and modernize the system. Schuster’s plan is modeled after Nav Canada, a non-governmental entity that handles less than one-tenth the air traffic volume in the U.S.

What’s really at stake here?

As the nation’s national debt continues to grow to perilous levels, Congress is looking for ways to cut budgets, reduce deficit spending and limit government oversight as much as possible. In the case of the FAA, this is shortsighted and perhaps even dangerous. Proponents of ATC privatization want the FAA to regulate safety, but not oversee or manage the air traffic control system, its facilities or personnel – as if safety and air traffic control were somehow separate.

The proposal calls for the creation of a quasi-private/public entity. If you aren’t as skeptical about government-created, non-profit corporations as we are, you should be. Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, The Port Authority of New York and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority are just a few dismal examples.

Historically, these entities become bloated, wasteful and politically corrupt. Freddie Mac’s and Fannie Mae’s sub-prime lending policies contributed to the mortgage collapse in 2007/08. Moreover, the ever-escalating subway fares and bridge tolls in New York City over the past decade will tell you exactly what a non-profit overseer can do to your wallet.

Bottom line? A FAA dependent upon “user fees” for revenue will add more cost to flying and will be ineffective in generating additional revenue, because any new revenue will be swallowed up by a completely new bureaucracy that would be created to charge, collect, distribute and enforce fees. These additional people won’t be air traffic controllers, but instead toll takers.

What is it really all about? Money, Principle, Safety?

132 million flights are handled by U.S. controllers annually. The U.S. also has 80% of the busiest airports in the world along with the best safety record. As we said earlier, the FAA is doing a good job.

The public seems to agree. Recently the Global Strategy Group polled 801 registered voters across the U.S.to gauge public sentiment about privatizing the air traffic system. Nearly 2 out of 3 do not want privatization because they view the U.S. air traffic system as working well. Even among voters who usually favor privatization of government functions, there is a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” sentiment when it comes to our current air traffic system.

Putting the safety issue aside, some privatization advocates argue that air traffic control shouldn’t be in the hands of a regulatory agency such as the FAA, especially one so perniciously micromanaged by Congress. They see air traffic as purely operational and not requiring government oversight. They argue that air traffic is a high-tech service which should be run like a business (we all know how much business puts safety above profits!).

More things to ponder.

Because we have been unabashed about our skepticism of privatization from the outset of this article, we would like to share some concerns that we and other like-minded aviation folk have about the plan. Consider:

  • At risk would also be funding for general aviation and smaller airports – the concern being that large air carriers would funnel more funding to larger airports and hubs.
  • The public airspace belongs to the American public at large and we need to ensure that it continues to operate for the public’s benefit — not just for powerful and influential special interest groups.
  • The current fuel per gallon tax is the most efficient, cost effective, least bureaucratic and most fair means to pay for ATC and the airspace system.
  • Europe, Canada and New Zealand employ user fees. Users of these systems frequently complain of delayed and inaccurate billing, as well as being “blocked” from the airspace during certain day parts.
  • Delta Airlines (the only major airline that has voiced concern about the user-fees and the safety of privatization) states it costs them over $100 per flight segment to process user fees – a cost that will be passed on to the flying public.
  • Canada and Europe claim to be equally as safe, if not safer than the US system. To say “as safe or safer” is misleading as the U.S. ATC system handles far more air traffic than Canada and Europe combined. Canada’s daily air traffic control amounts to the same number of flights controlled in Illinois on a daily basis.
  • Proponents of a privatized ATC system state that it will cost less to operate. Yet, our ATC system has never “shut down” due to a lack of funding, even during the darkest of economic days. In Europe, the privatized ATC system has been “bailed out” 3 times during economic downturns, and still operates under tremendous financial strain.

We are the first to agree that the FAA must operate more efficiently – but the key to that is maintaining Congressional oversight and retaining fuel taxes in order to protect the interests of all stakeholders, communities and airports — large and small.

The national airspace belongs to all of us. Let’s not turn our skies into a toll-road only special interests can afford to use.