[Update: Boing Boing bought into the airlines' side on this and went even further, confusing airport development funds with ATC costs and somehow making it sound like 25% of the cost of each airline ticket subsidizes rich people in bizjets. To their credit, they ran a couple of follow-up corrections from readers. Thanks to Mark for the tip.]
In this speech, U.S. FAA administrator Marion C. Blakey defends a new, fee-based U.S. system on these grounds:
“Tell you what. If the FAA really wanted to kill GA, as our critics claim, we’d just sit back and do nothing. We’d leave the air traffic system just the way it is, and let congestion slowly squeeze them out.”
What pilots know (but the public doesn’t) is that we have procedures for handling every part of a flight without help from air traffic control (ATC), and that thousands of flights every day go from point A to point B without ever talking to an air traffic controller. We have rules for departing (landing traffic gets right of way for the runway), rules for enroute (different altitudes for different directions of flight), and rules for arrival (everyone joins a circuit or pattern and takes their turn to land). In the Canadian north, as Aviatrix can attest, we even manage IFR just fine without ATC help.
These rules work great, but they do require that everyone slow down and get in line, and that’s where ATC comes in. Sure, a 737 could slow down to (say) 180 knots, fly a wide pattern, and wait its turn to land, but the airline doesn’t want it to (gas is expensive, and passengers hate being late). When the weather goes down, the airlines don’t want their jets and commuter turboprops stacked 20 deep in a hold following the one-in/one-out rule for uncontrolled airports in IFR. They don’t want to have to slow down to near propeller speed in terminal airspace in VFR so that they can see and avoid other traffic reasonably.
Because of all that, we have a special system in place to help the big guys out. There are controllers at busier airports, terminal controllers, and enroute controllers to help them get in and out of airports faster, without having to get in line and wait (at least, not as much). Huge amounts of airspace are reserved so that only aircraft talking to ATC can use them, again, almost entirely for the benefit of the airlines.
Remember that the sky belongs to everyone, and all this special accommodation for the airlines this is a bit of a pain for us G.A. pilots (long waits for clearances around class B/C or long detours, etc.), but we can get used to it, just like drivers get used to bus lanes. And sometimes (rarely), we even get our own tower at airports with extremely heavy G.A. traffic, just to help things along. It really adds insult to injury, though, when airlines complain that G.A. is not paying its fair share of the cost of this system (even though we already pay a fuel tax on both sides of the border, and a small fee in Canada, to subsidize a system designed largely for the airlines’ benefit), and it’s even worse when organizations like Nav Canada or the FAA start acting as lobbyists for the airlines.