With Joseph Biden set to assume the office of President of the United States on Wednesday, there will doubtless be big changes in policy and perspective. Here’s how aviation is likely to be on the winning side of those changes.
By Isabel Goyer
The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States is tomorrow, and there are, believe it or not, bigger issues facing our country other than how his presidency will affect us pilots. Things like a pandemic that’s killed nearly 400,000 Americans over around the past 10 months, not to mention the little dust-up over the election and the events of November 6, 2020. So, will the new President Biden even be thinking about the needs of us pilots? The answer is, “No” and, “Thank goodness, no.”
But that’s not to say that a Biden administration won’t leave its mark on aviation, because it will. It’s very likely that the changes will be minor, at least from our industry’s point of view, except for two big things: user fees and ATC privatization.
As you’re no doubt aware, the biggest political threat to aviation we’ve faced over the past four-plus years has been the threat of user fees, a near-miss that came darned close to coming true when an extremely airline-friendly FAA funding bill was repeatedly put forth in the House by a congressman who was in a long-term relationship with a prominent airline lobbyist.
Part of Shuster’s (read: the airline lobby’s) vision was to transfer the fees that the airlines paid to use the National Airspace System to those of us who are flying smaller planes. The idea, which had a few different plans floated to accomplish it, was to move to a user fee-based system, so we’d pay a fee every time we went flying; the details of how that would work aren’t clear, which was another major issue with the idea. But the gist is, instead of the FAA’s funding being supported by a ticket tax, with airline passengers paying their fair share, they would pay a use fee for the flight, which would do away with hundreds of millions of dollars of passenger fee contributions every year.
The second part of the plan, which Shuster inserted at the 11th hour in a funding bill in 2018, was to privatize ATC, essentially handing over control of the National Airspace System to a private company, which very conveniently would be run by a board dominated by… you guessed it, airline industry people.
Neither concept is likely to get any traction under a Biden administration because of the administration’s likely stance against the transfer of public interests, like ATC, to private industry, a policy approach favored by the previous administration, which we saw in numerous privatizing initiatives in everything from its emphasis on charter schools to its stated objective to privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs, neither of which came to fruition. Such threats are unlikely under a Biden White House.
The same is true for the creation of FAA user fees which, like President Trump’s corporate tax breaks passed early on his administration, seeks to move tax liability away from corporations to private individuals. President-elect Biden has long endorsed cutting taxes for the middle-class and expecting corporations to pay more of their fare share.
Will a Biden Administration be friendlier to pilots than previous ones? It would be hard for it to be any worse. Under both the Obama and Trump-led administrations, the power of the FAA only grew stronger ,and its hardline position on pilot medicals, which took another step in the wrong direction recently with Oklahoma City tightening up its rules on medical waivers, a policy shift that will likely cost pilots many millions of dollars in what many believe are largely unnecessary and overpriced medical screenings conducted by handpicked doctors. Broadening health care rights could force the FAA to modernize a number of similarly pilot-unfriendly policies.
There’s no crystal ball when it comes to the policy direction of incoming presidents, but if President-elect Biden’s campaign rhetoric is to be believed, then the next four years could signal a positive direction for general aviation.