2017-02-09 / Front Page

'Dire Ramifications' for Local Airport if Bill OKd

Middletown officials urging Congress not to privatize air traffic control operations
By Olga Enger

A proposal to wrench air traffic control operations out of the government’s hands and put them under the control of a private corporation would hurt the Newport State Airport and the local economy, according to Middletown officials.

“Airports like ours are likely to suffer,” said Middletown Solicitor Peter Regan at a Feb. 6 meeting of the Town Council.

Newport’s airport, which is located in Middletown, is used by visitors, local aircraft owners and tourism operators such as those offering helicopter tours and skydiving. The airport does not host scheduled airline services, although it was once a stop on Air New England’s routes.

“If the system is privatized, small community airports are likely to see a cut in service,” said Regan.

In a letter addressed to members of Congress, Council President Robert Sylvia described “very real and dire ramifications” for community airports.

“Privatization would hand over decisions about infrastructure funding, taxes and fees, consumer complaints, noise and many other priorities to a board of private interests dominated by the commercial airlines,” Sylvia wrote.

The Newport State Airport is one of six operated by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC). The other five are T.F. Green State Airport, North Central State Airport, Westerly State Airport, Quonset State Airport and Block Island State Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates the airspace.

“Small aircraft and airports are utilized on a daily basis to help transport blood and organs to residents in rural communities, reunite veterans back from overseas with their families, maintain power lines, and help our companies to reach customers in far-off markets, among other priorities,” Sylvia wrote in the letter.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved privatization legislation last year, but the full House or Senate has not debated the proposal.

The chief sponsor, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has argued the FAA is moving too slowly to adopt new technology as part of the agency’s long-discussed air traffic control modernization program. He argued a nonprofit corporation financed by fees from airlines and private owners would be more efficient and cost effective, reducing delays and airport congestion.

Middletown officials questioned if a private system is the solution to those concerns.

“The Canadian privatized system, which is often held up as the system the U.S. should emulate, is more expensive than the system we have in the U.S. by miles flown,” wrote Sylvia. Additionally, he added, the UK has seen “more delays, higher fares and reduced connectivity” since privatization.

State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, estimated that takeoffs and landings at the local airport have increased from 20,000 to 24,000 annually in the past five years. He attributed the spike to the growing popularity of adventure tourism, such as skydiving and helicopter tours.

“There has been a big increase in skydiving,” DiPalma said in a November interview with Newport This Week. “People come in from Connecticut and New York to skydive over Newport because of the view.”

Businesses are increasingly using the airport as well, the legislator noted.

However, the infusion of tourism does not come without a cost for some residents. DiPalma organized a Town Hall meeting last October that attracted around 100 people who voiced concerns about escalating noise pollution from the community airport.

Since the FAA regulates the airspace, there is little the state can do to change standards, said DiPalma. Nevertheless, the airport provides recommended procedures to minimize the impact to the surrounding neighborhood, such as helicopter hover time limits and the least intrusive methods of arrivals and departures.

The Trump administration has not taken a position on privatizing air traffic control operations.

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