Opinion: Air-traffic-control privatization a concern for Arizona airports

I have worked in aviation in Arizona for 29 years, working my way up from an aircraft re-fueler in Phoenix to my current role as manager of the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.  I have traveled and worked all around this great state of ours, enjoying the vastly different climates and terrains – all of which drive home for me the critical importance of aviation for a state like Arizona.

As an example, many people may not be aware that our airport serves as a hub for organizations like Flight for Life, which is made of over 240 pilots in the state who volunteer their time to transport blood via general aviation to the communities throughout our state.

Pilots fly blood 365 days a year to the Flagstaff Medical Center, which is the only emergency medical facility north of Prescott Valley, and lies in proximity to our airport. Since blood platelets can expire in a matter of days, transport by flight is often the only way to ensure that our state’s medical centers receive the blood flow they need to save lives.

From blood transfusions to fire-flight training, border patrol and disaster relief, general aviation is important in a way that cannot be measured in dollars and I am proud of the general aviation services our airport provides. Yet, the economic footprint of our airport is real as well.  For example, our airport is also expanding to service flights to Dallas and Los Angeles.

As the closest commercial airport in over 90 miles and servicing more than 120 operations per day, our airport generates $138 billion annually to the economy of northern Arizona.

Flying in Arizona for all these years, I am all too familiar with the history of the FAA. After all, it was the tragic plane crash over the Grand Canyon in 1956 that influenced the creation of the FAA. Since then, the FAA has been successful in managing the world’s largest and most complex air traffic system.  The FAA has some of the same challenges as any government entity, but it puts as its mission safety first and ensures that we have the safest, largest and most diverse system in the world.  There is no other system in the world that prioritizes and serves thousands of airports that serve communities of all sizes – and that is the way it should be.

However, some want to take away oversight over our air traffic control system away from the FAA and put it in the hands of a private board that is dominated by the biggest airlines and airports.  This concerns me because our national network of 3,100 airports are critical to national infrastructure.

Many of them like Flagstaff or smaller support a wide variety of vital functions, including law enforcement, medical response, disaster relief, blood and organ transportation and economic growth. Under a privatized system, the focus would shift away from balancing the needs of smaller and larger airports alike.

Right now our aviation system serves the public and our communities of all sizes and that is the way it should stay.

Barney Helmick
M
anager
Flagstaff Pulliam Airport

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