Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (KBZN) director shares concerns with Sen. Jon Tester over air-traffic control costs

Sen. Jon Tester, right, listens to the concerns from Brian Sprenger, director of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, in Belgrade, regarding parts of the FAA Reauthorization bill, which the U.S. Senate will see for a vote later this month.

The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport director hopes a Federal Aviation Administration bill will fix a funding loophole and address private air-traffic control tower costs.

Airport director Brian Sprenger met with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday to discuss details of the FAA’s six-year reauthorization bill introduced in the U.S. House earlier this month by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bill is due from Congress by the end of March.

The bill requires that tens of thousands of unionized air-traffic controllers leave the FAA’s employment and be organized under a federally chartered not-for-profit organization. The new corporation would also oversee a $40 billion modernization program called NextGen.

The FAA bill would also ban in-flight cellphone calls, require a baggage fee refund if bags arrive late, and mandate timely rule-making on the use of small drones in the national airspace.

It’s already drawing criticism from the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, for allowing a corporation to control a $40 billion program without congressional oversight.

The controller’s union president told the committee that the union supports the bill, saying that Congress is unable to provide stable funding and an independent organization run by a board of stakeholders could deliver results similar to those in Canada, which has seen success with a similar model.

Sprenger told Tester the air-traffic controllers at the airport in Belgrade, the busiest in the state, are already private contractors.

Private towers like Bozeman’s should get financial support “equitable” to what FAA towers get to pay for heating, lighting, radios and maintenance, he said. Getting these costs off his books would mean attractive prices for airlines in Bozeman and being able to focus on other projects, such as the planned runway and parking garage.

“They want us to fence around it now. That’s all our expense,” Sprenger told the senator. “Meanwhile in Helena, Billings or Great Falls, it’s all federal expense. That’s one of the frustrating things is, it’s not so much reauthorization, but the devil is in the details. How does that work? We’re not real pleased with the way it works right now. If we go that way we want that addressed. We just want it to be equitable and fair.”

The House is expected to take the bill up next week. Tester said he’d carry Sprenger’s concerns to Washington, D.C., but wanted to know if he was interested in transitioning from a private tower to an FAA tower.

“We would love for them to take over the tower building and maintain it because they know towers. We don’t know towers,” Sprenger said. “The staffing, I don’t think we need federal staffing levels which are maybe a little bloated. But we need a little more than what we have.”

Sprenger also reported concerns that airlines are shifting passenger costs to non-taxable ancillary fees like baggage. Doing so depletes the FAA’s Airport & Airway Trust Fund, he said, which funnels money back to airports to support operations, capital improvements and project grants.

“So it’s your preference, if we’re looking for additional revenue, to maybe take the loophole out of the baggage fees,” Tester asked.

Sprenger said yes.

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