Say It Ain’t So, Sam (And Southwest Airlines)

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This week’s news feed produced the disturbing and surprising announcement that Missouri’s Rep. Sam Graves will vote in favor of ATC privatization, otherwise known as HR 2997, but in real terms the biggest public giveaway to the airlines since the depression.

Graves, you probably know, is head of the House general aviation caucus and has been a reliable, stalwart supporter of the industry since his term began in George W. Bush’s first term. In supporting the 21st Century AIRR Act, as it’s called, Graves said he flipped from opposing the bill to supporting it because a provision has been added prohibiting user fees for general aviation. (Read the text here.)

Seriously? Rep. Graves has been around the houses enough times to know that the once the large hill of privatization is climbed in the first place, the nettlesome clause about user fees can be dispensed with by subsequent revisions. I wonder if he believes the GA community is naļve enough to accept his assurances. But I wonder even more what he traded for that vote because good public policy it ain’t.

The bill also has a provision that prohibits the ATC corporation from denying airspace access to non-fee-paying entities. I believe that will stick like I believe in the Easter Bunny. Once the door is open to privatization, the airline-dominated oversight board will reconfigure the system ever so slowly to optimize it for its own needs. As I’ve said before, I’m less worried about fees than an erosion of easy and routine access to all ATC services. I’m just contrarian enough to go against the alphabets on this issue, but I just can’t see an argument that this structure is of any conceivable benefit and I’m not willing to give it a chance. So, sorry Sam. I’m not buying it.

Bouquets and Brickbats for Southwest

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, that we aren’t running news about some airline mistreating customers or some customers running off the rails and having to be forcibly ejected from an airliner, with cause. It’s a jungle out there.

So it was cheering to hear this story about Southwest turning a departing flight back to the gate and removing a woman passenger. The reason was that the airline had been notified that the woman’s son had become comatose. They rerouted her travel plans so she could join her son at bedside. They tended to her luggage and even packed a lunch at one of her connections. The son recovered and so far, everyone is living happily ever after.

Oddly, this didn’t happen last week or even last month, but more than two years ago. It was covered contemporaneously. It recently resurfaced because, well shucks, it’s just so heartwarming. And it is. Southwest went above and beyond, even if it actually happened two years ago. I’m a regular customer of Southwest and a beneficiary of its exceptional customer service. But as you’re dabbing that tear from the corner of your eye, let me hurl this imaginary brick through the Southwest storefront.

Last week, I got an email from the airline urging me to call my representative to support HR 2997. Say it ain’t so, Southwest. And not just no, but hell no.

Comments (34)

Earlier today I echoed your concerns on Russ Niles piece about Rep. Graves. Future modifications to the bill to tax GA are only a signature away. I can't see how the GA exemption will survive the "fair share" and "class envy" arguments the next time fuel prices skyrocket and people start to question why their tickets cost so much. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see where the general public will cry foul that their ticket cost is subsidizing GA. That exemption is just a signature away from repeal. This is a nasty path the House is taking. I contacted my rep and he responded. I didn't get a warm fuzzy.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 16, 2017 9:27 PM    Report this comment

I smell a big dead rat in this. I also contacted my rep and senators. Received a one page e-mail loaded with Bravo Sierra. The too, my congressional delegation is not at all friendly to aviation, the constitution etc. They have never met a chance to solicit campaign contributions form the deep pocket corps that they could resist.

I have a feeling that this is a done deal with the airlines making lots of back room deals.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | July 16, 2017 9:58 PM    Report this comment

About 240,000 Missourians voted for Sam Graves in the 2016 State elections. Missouri has a small pilot population, about 536 pilots. The 2018 elections are around the corner. He ain't making waves on the present ATC privatization push, even if it is a disservice to Missouri's GA. He wants to be re-elected and his GA is not worth enough to worry. It's insignificant in Missouri. Unfortunately his reversal affects national GA. Too bad.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 17, 2017 2:07 AM    Report this comment

Sam Graves just lost all of my respect. Too bad I don't live in MS, so I can vote against him.

People in favor of US ATC privatization always point to Canada, but we really should know that our government system doesn't work like theirs, and we have significantly more air traffic than them. And as this current administration is proving, it really is that case that any protections are just a pen-stroke away from being removed.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 17, 2017 8:18 AM    Report this comment

So, the head of the House General Aviation Caucus gives in and reverses course to support the airlines' takeover of the National Airspace System? Where do we get these Judas Iscariots? I hope he enjoys his thirty pieces of silver.

Posted by: A Richie | July 17, 2017 8:51 AM    Report this comment

I read that the airlines are slated to get 3 of the 13 seats on the Board. Would that comprise "a takeover?"

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 17, 2017 8:54 AM    Report this comment

As my father would say, "They got to him!"
Years ago, when (now former) Sen. Olympia Snowe was in the U.S. House, she was almost unseated by a little-known Democratic state rep. with a C-172. The rep flew from town to town throughout Maine's rural, 27,000-square mile second district pressing the flesh and came within decimal points of knocking off a popular incumbent. A few years later I contacted Snowe on a GA issue and did not feel the love. The truth, of course, as Robert and Leo suggest, is that most members of Congress view GA issues through the prism of political self-interest, which puts us at a disadvantage in the age of "scale."
I have not given money to AOPA since they started buying jets, but I guess I'll have to relent and make a small donation. Fight fire with fire, as they say.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | July 17, 2017 8:55 AM    Report this comment

"S 90306. Board of Directors
"(a) Authority.--The powers of the Corporation shall be vested in a Board of Directors that governs the Corporation.
"(b) Composition of Board.--The Board shall be composed of the following Directors:
"(1) The CEO.
"(2) 2 Directors appointed by the Secretary.
"(3) 1 Director nominated by the Passenger Air Carrier Nomination Panel.
"(4) 1 Director nominated by the Cargo Air Carrier Nomination Panel.
"(5) 1 Director nominated by the Regional Air Carrier Nomination Panel.
"(6) 1 Director nominated by the General Aviation Nomination Panel.
"(7) 1 Director nominated by the Business Aviation Nomination Panel.
"(8) 1 Director nominated by the Air Traffic Controller Nomination Panel.
"(9) 1 Director nominated by the Airport Nomination Panel.
"(10) 1 Director nominated by the Commercial Pilot Nomination Panel.
"(11) 2 Directors nominated and selected by the other Directors.

Doesn't look GA friendly to me.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 17, 2017 9:11 AM    Report this comment

Three (3) seats for air carriers is a lot when GA only gets 1.

Note the line they slipped in there "2 Directors nominated and selected by the other Directors"...
Hmmm, who do you think this board might select? Mark Baker? Jack Pelton? And then there are two more mystery directors selected by the Secretary.

This is a bit like the old saw of 2 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

Posted by: A Richie | July 17, 2017 9:52 AM    Report this comment

And just imagine how easy "billing" will be once they have all of us squitting ADS-B 'out.' Now that I think about it, if "they" ultimately get to charge GA ... many people will shun those services negating the need for ADS-B in the first place. Safety will be impacted.

I once worked with an aero company in Buffalo who flies variable stability airplanes for militaries around the world. They were in Europe and decided to get some training in so they were doing touch and go ops. A month later, their company received a very large bill for the operation ... negating their profit.

I'd love to know why Graves 'flipped?'

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 17, 2017 10:35 AM    Report this comment

"I'd love to know why Graves 'flipped?'"

Maybe some of the other presumed directors "suggested" that they would nominate him to be on the board?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 17, 2017 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Privatization or not, what is the master plan for the airspace?

How does anyone plan on preventing mid-airs?

Over the next decade we are told to be prepared for 10's of millions of drones delivering pizza and beer. Once the stabilization technologies are integrated and approved for helicopters there will be a rush on private helicopter daily commuting. The skies in and around the cities will have aircraft racing in every direction and no one has given the slightest hint to how it's going to be done.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | July 17, 2017 12:25 PM    Report this comment

Klaus - Good question but it raises another. Any new scheme this corporation devises will likely need incorporation in the FARs. I don't recall seeing anything in the bill about how they get their desires incorporated (perhaps I just missed it). Since this corporation is taking all the talent and infrastructure, does that mean the FAA will become their rubber stamp?

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 17, 2017 12:34 PM    Report this comment

Paul,

Thank you for speaking out on this.

I think Rep. Graves has is getting behind HR 2997 for the same reason Rep. Bill Shuster initiated that legislation. In Shuster's case, Employees and executives of air carriers represented by the lobbying group Airlines for America (A4A) contributed $300,000 to Mr. Shuster's reelection campaign, and another $50,000 to his Leadership PAC. Next year, Rep. Graves will release his campaign financials and we will likely see A4A and its affiliates in evidence.

You also right that the piston exemption from user fees will not survive future revisions of the bill. The exemption doesn't comport with basic fairness, which makes it vulnerable to attack. If we use fee-based airspace, then we should pay something. The Canadian system assesses a reasonable annual fee for GA users on the order of $100. Loss of airspace access is greater risk and there are plenty of ways an airline-dominated ATC corporation could do this without violating the letter of the law. The exclusion of GA would probably start in dense Metroplex air space. One form it could take is requiring all IFR users to fly RNP approaches which require crew certification. It could easily be done by decommissioning existing RNAV and LPV approaches - all within the legal power of the Corporation. On the subject of GPS approaches, during the past 10 years the airlines have expressed growing resentment over the FAA's allocation of resources to develop (thousands of) WAAS (LP and LPV) approaches at local airports across America. If you like the FAA or hate it, no one can argue with the Agency's commitment to make the latest technology available to all of us. When HR 2997 becomes law, ATC corporation will cease developing, certifying and maintaining instrument approaches at local airports. Over time that will significantly thin the ranks of GA in the IFR environment.

Thanks again Paul for speaking out.

Posted by: kim hunter | July 17, 2017 1:19 PM    Report this comment

It seems strange to me that there actually is a serious proposal to turn over the safest air traffic control system in the world to a private corporation. This is clearly a misguided effort to solve the unpredictable FAA funding stream problems created by a dysfunctional legislature. Each year FAA budget planning is subject to political football that without doubt is a vehicle for some incumbents to encourage donations from the airline industry to benefit their reelection. As proposed, this effort to create a private corporation to manage ATC will be dominated by the airline industry. This is the same industry that pleaded for deregulation in 1978 and after deregulation was granted, almost every major airline eventually went bankrupt when forced to compete against each other. This is the same industry that has a terrible public image for treating the traveling customer with respect. Exactly how would turning the management of ATC over to a private corporation cause the airlines to fix their own problems?
I have been a pilot since 1961, flew in the US military for a few years, and still an active flight instructor. I have zero confidence that an airline industry dominated private corporation managing ATC would fairly represent the interests on general aviation which is really the foundation and source of the qualities that make American aviation the world leader.

Posted by: Steven Gibb | July 17, 2017 2:23 PM    Report this comment

Again, I ask all of the Chicken Littles in the comentariat: how does 3 of 13 seats comprise "a takeover" or "domination" by the airlines? Sounds like a distinct minority, to me.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 17, 2017 3:41 PM    Report this comment

"how does 3 of 13 seats comprise "a takeover" or "domination" by the airlines?"

Of the 13 total seats (5 of which are indeterminate), there are 6 seats composed of members directly representing aircraft/pilots: passenger air carriers, cargo air carriers, regional air carriers (i.e. a second "passenger air carrier" category), general aviation, business aviation, commercial pilots (that seems a bit nebulous - do I count in this category since I have a commercial rating?).

So, GA is 1/13th of the total board, and 1/6th of the aircraft/pilot sub-group. Commercial aviation, on the other hand, is either 3/13th and 3/6th--1/2--(respectively), or if you count business aviation and commercial pilots as non-GA, 5/13th and 5/6th (respectively).

Further, considering GA only has 1/13th voting rights on the board, it's likely that one or more of those 5 indeterminate positions will be held by someone not advocating on the behalf of GA.

In any case, the "airlines" have 3 board positions while GA has only 1. Why does it make sense that the airlines have 3 board positions, when "general aviation" is defined as "anything that isn't the airlines or military"? Why not have at least 3 sub-GA categories such as "flight instruction" (a flight instructor is a commercial-rated pilot but instructs under part-91 and is getting paid to teach, not fly, so they aren't commercial pilots) and "avocational aviation"? At a minimum, "passenger air carrier" and "regional air carrier" should be just one board position.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 17, 2017 4:15 PM    Report this comment

Gary:
I'm still not seeing that magic number of airline seats - seven. It's like a game of "where's Waldo." Help me out...

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 17, 2017 7:17 PM    Report this comment

So....

Missouri's Rep. and farmer Sam Graves flip-flops on the anti "ATC Privatization" promise back flipping on GA.
Perhaps not unexpected. From 1999-2016, about 25 percent of Graves' political career contributions came from the top five industries. Ranking as number 3 is the Air Transport industry totaling $608,649. Arriving on schedule, Southwest Airlines recently contributed to Graves' 2018 reelection campaign, as they have in the past, according to opensecrets.org.

Amusingly or not. AOPA, has been a consistent Graves' reelection campaign contributor. Maybe, AOPA's "leadership" needs to explain.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 18, 2017 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Paul, since you mentioned it, can you point to exactly where this provision for prohibiting user fees for GA is in the bill?

Posted by: A Richie | July 18, 2017 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Look in 90313 (d) (7)

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 18, 2017 1:10 PM    Report this comment

"Gary:
I'm still not seeing that magic number of airline seats - seven. It's like a game of "where's Waldo." Help me out..."

GA has only a single voice out of 13 heads. The airlines have at least 3 voices. Add in "business aviation" and "commercial pilots" and that's 5. And it's quite easy to see at least 2 of the 4 non-specific positions being airline-friendly. That makes 7.

But even if you don't follow that math, 1/13 is much less than 3/13, and there's very little reason to expect any of the remaining positions to be pro-GA (maybe they might not be overtly anti-GA, but they most likely won't be pro-GA).

Best case, 2 of the non-specific positions will include AOPA and EAA. Maybe we might get lucky and NAFI and/or SAFE will fill another 1 or 2 of those positions. But I find it unlikely that the 3 airline positions would agree to all four; maybe at most just one of them. However you cut it, GA won't have much of a voice.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 18, 2017 1:25 PM    Report this comment

I can't find the specific user fee exemption that version of the bill. But from what Graves said, I got the impression that amendment is to come. Or perhaps he's not being truthful, which, of course, no congressman would ever do.

As for the board seats, you'd have to be pretty naive to think the airlines won't exert massive influence to fill the four non-specified seats with fellow travelers. The country moves ever more rapidly away from infrastructure conceived for the great good and toward rejiggering the system for private sector profit. This one is happening right before your eyes, guys.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2017 1:49 PM    Report this comment

Gary, don't forget the 13th vote is the CEO. He will likely be elected by the other 12.

The commercial pilot seat will likely be ALPA. We saw what they thought of GA (against the wishes of many of their own members) when they vetoed the 3rd class medical exemption.

Posted by: A Richie | July 18, 2017 1:50 PM    Report this comment

"Gary, don't forget the 13th vote is the CEO. He will likely be elected by the other 12.

The commercial pilot seat will likely be ALPA."


Good point. So that's at least 4/13 seats pro-airline. Plus an elected CEO by the other 12, so GA will again have virtually no say in the position.

And I assume "Business Aviation" will be NBAA. While they are technically "GA", I don't have a warm-and-fuzzy feeling that they won't potentially advocate for reduced "little plane" access to reliever airports (like HPN/SWF in the Northeast). So I put them in the "not anti-GA, but not pro-GA either" camp.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 18, 2017 2:21 PM    Report this comment

Starve an offending government-run program like ATC or our National Parks (being done as we speak) or the VA of funding (beaucoup money untapped here) so that it falls into disrepair and can only be "saved" by the special 'magic-dust' of, drum roll please, The Free Market.

ATC towers on airports with golden 'T's at the top and a brightly lit 60 story high 'T' hotel on the south rim of Grand Canyon. Trust us billionaires, we'll take good care of ya. Play around with the logic of first grade arithmetic for board positions and placate your fears - power becomes instantly inert when the math says it should be equitable. We'll make sure of that for ya...

As Paul said, it's happening right before our eyes.

Posted by: Dave Miller | July 18, 2017 3:21 PM    Report this comment

''S 90313. Charges and fees for air traffic services

''(d) STANDARDS.--The Secretary shall apply the following standards in reviewing a proposal from the Corporation under subsection (c):

''(7) Charges and fees may not be imposed for air traffic services provided with respect to aircraft operations conducted pursuant to part 91, 133, 135, 136, or 137 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations.

This is extracted segments (copied, pasted, line numbers removed) from the proposed bill. I recommend everyone reference it to limit speculation of content. However, you can see where a future bill can easily remove (7) above. Very concerning...

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 18, 2017 4:19 PM    Report this comment

It's easy to believe someone when they are telling you what you want to hear.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 18, 2017 9:33 PM    Report this comment

Based on commentary in this space, there is no actual evidence that the proposed law will comprise "a takeover of ATC and the nation's airspace, by the airlines" - only a widely-held suspicion that, ultimately, that will happen.
I readily acknowledge that, just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean that they're not out to get you.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 19, 2017 9:03 AM    Report this comment

"...fees may not be imposed for air traffic services provided with respect to aircraft operations..."

Note that this could be interpreted to prohibit per-flight fees (i.e. for aircraft operations) but still could allow a flat base fee for supporting the entire system possibly coupled to aircraft registration. This is the way natural gas is billed to consumers in many states with a flat-fee to support the piping system (and perhaps the way NavCanada operates as well?). It's not much of a fig leaf to hide behind.

Posted by: A Richie | July 19, 2017 9:14 AM    Report this comment

YARS, think ATC IT AUTOMATION.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 19, 2017 11:12 AM    Report this comment

After perusing the NBAA website, they seem to be as vigorously opposed to HR 2997 as any of the other GA groups. I don't see any fence-straddling from them, at least not yet.

In fact, they have a very informative 2-page graphic called "The Truth About General Aviation Protections in HR 2997". It's very well done and worth taking a look at. Here, they make a very important additional point that the at-large members can be selected by less than a super-majority once the Board takes control of ATC. So, the rules change to more easily run the tables once the ATC service is transferred. Below is the NBAA's quote:


(Begin quote) "The board would include four seats for the scheduled airlines and their employees. However, by aligning forces with the hub airports, the air traffic controllers union and the at large board members, the airlines could dominate the board.

According to HR 2997, once the ATC system is transferred to the private board, a "supermajority" would no longer be required to select the at-large members. The supermajority is only required for appointment of at-large members before transfer of the ATC system occurs. Potential Board Control: The 13-member board is dominated by airline related interests." (end quote)

Posted by: A Richie | July 19, 2017 11:26 AM    Report this comment

It really doesn't change the argument much but there are way more than 536 pilots in MO. The FAA database shows just under 12,000. Maybe you meant in Graves district?

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | July 21, 2017 5:04 PM    Report this comment

It really doesn't change the argument much but there are way more than 536 pilots in MO. The FAA database shows just under 12,000. Maybe you meant in Graves district?

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | July 21, 2017 5:05 PM    Report this comment

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