Flight delays have become a fact of life as the nation's outdated aviation infrastructure struggles to meet modern travel demands — a problem magnified during busy flying days like the upcoming Labor Day weekend. While Congress is working on reforms to help fix these problems, many Americans would be surprised to learn that a special interest group is blocking these efforts so it can preserve billion-dollar tax breaks for a few wealthy private jet owners.
In recent months, flight delays have been up from 2016 levels, and these problems will only be compounded on busy holidays such as Labor Day, when an all-time high of 16.1 million passengers were expected to fly — up 5 percent from 2016.
Though delays can sometimes be unavoidable — nobody can control when inclement weather strikes — some of the blame can be placed on the nation's World War II-era air traffic control (ATC) system. Bringing ATC into the 21st century would help alleviate congestion, reduce flight delays and make air travel safer than ever before.
The good news is that Congress is considering legislation aimed at speeding up ATC modernization efforts by shifting oversight of the system from the federal government to an independent nonprofit agency that has more flexibility to finance projects, meet deadlines and invest in new technology. That bill is supported by the nation's major airlines and the air traffic controllers' union, but a little-known special interest group called the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which represents the nation's wealthiest corporate and private jet owners, is working fervently to block these efforts.
For years, the NBAA and its members, which include major corporations such as Honeywell, Monsanto, United Technologies and JPMorgan, have stood in the way of efforts to reform aviation infrastructure. This is largely because they want to protect a status quo that allows them to avoid paying their share of ATC modernization costs. In fact, while corporate and private jets account for about $1 billion in annual ATC costs — with many CEOs racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal air travel — they pay only a small fraction of that in fees each year (only $57 million in 2014) to help maintain and upgrade the system.
This free-riding comes on top of the numerous taxpayer-subsidized loopholes already enjoyed by many NBAA members. For instance, Honeywell — a member of NBAA's Leadership Council — has taken more than $400 million in subsidies over the past 20 years, and through a variety of tax-avoidance maneuvers, paid just a 15 percent corporate tax rate from 2008 to 2015 — far below the 35 percent federal rate.
This unfair system increasingly leaves ATC underfunded and forces travelers sitting in coach — and all American taxpayers — to pick up the tab while wealthy CEOs ride comfortably on their private jets. The NBAA is desperate to preserve this status quo, and is in the midst of an all-out lobbying war to kill the congressional reforms aimed at creating a modernized and equitably financed aviation infrastructure.
It is clear that an air traffic control system designed in the 1940s is not equipped to handle the demands of 21st-century air travel. Its obsolescence is causing more and more delays for American flyers. And without a more modern and efficient system, these travel headaches will only get worse. It is time for the NBAA to put the interests of the entire country first and support reforms to make air travel better and safer for all Americans.
Alan Clendenin is a founding member of the advocacy group Flyers for Fairness. He has more than 30 years of experience in air traffic control and is a longtime Florida Democratic leader.
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