FAA privatisation – User fees based ATC – First hand experience from Europe

The topic of privatising the FAA or at least ATC is hot again now that the Trump’s administration is talking about it again. The most important point here is not about having a private or state run ATC but what for a model. I’m flying in Europe and we have user fees everywhere. Landing fees, approach fees, parking fees, passenger fees customs fees and a few more. There is even a whole chapter on fees in my “Flying in Europe” eBook…

Airports being run by private or state organisation has nothing to do with it, it is only a matter of funding model. Look at France for example: ATC and most airports are run by the state but the funding model is still “user pays”, so you pay for each landing and even for each approach. Instead of having tax payers’ money pay for ATC, it is (at least partly) paid for directly by the users.

Some argue that there is no reason for tax payers to fund the infrastructure used as a hobby by others. This is not the discussion I want to launch here. The question is rather how this affects the safety of General Aviation, and of aviation in general. What are the consequences of a pay per use system? It is quite obvious and sad: an increase in risks taken by pilots.

I felt it myself at least once. I was on an IFR training flight to Bern (LSZB), flying a single engine light aircraft. With a take-off weight below 2’000kgs, I was at least not subject to en-route fees (yes, we’ve that for IFR in Europe) but I had to pay approach fees and landing fees. The approach did not run was good as I would and a I started to consider a go-around. The approach fees were 60 swiss francs by the time, roughly 50 US dollars.

My approach eventually got better and I could land safely. But the simple fact that the price of a second approach came to my mind during the approach was both a distraction and a small extra pressure to land and not go around.

When I flew in the US, I really appreciated the level of freedom available there, be in in terms of operating times, restricted areas, services offered to general aviation pilots, and absence of fees! While it is clear to me that the ATC system must be fund and paid for somehow, I really think that user fees is not the best way of doing it, particularly not on a “pay per approach” or “pay per landing” basis.

Spreading the costs without having each event leading to a fee is in all cases a much better system. The question is the to decide how to split it and who should bear the costs. But please, if you can do anything to protect the US from getting into the kind of systems we have in Europe, just do it, for the sake of aviation safety!

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