As a lifelong pilot and the first sitting member of Congress to go into space, I know as well as anyone how important aviation is for our society and our future. I spent many years with the Navy flying the Martin P5M surveillance aircraft, and then with the Utah Air National Guard flying the KC-97L Stratofreighter and a KC-135A Stratotanker. Now I fly my 1948 Ryan Navion.
My father was the first person to hold a pilot’s license in Utah and he played a key role in the creation of states’ aviation infrastructure. For our family, and for many families here, aviation is a way of life. But it is also a part of our fabric and economy that touches many parts of our life that many people do not realize. Those power lines that keep our electricity flowing are maintained by helicopters and aircraft. Patients are flown to trauma and rehabilitation centers using aircraft and airports and our businesses use our air transportation network to keep parts and people moving all day and night.
Aviation is an important part of our infrastructure and economy that we often do not see, but it is crucial for our livelihood — and that is why it is maintained as an important public resource.
Now that may all change. Since I've been in Congress, some have been pushing to privatize our air traffic control system and put the vital decisions affecting millions of Americans under a private board that would have no accountability to Congress. I am a tried and true Republican and I believe in the importance of the private sector, but our national air transportation system is and continues to be an enormously valuable asset to this country. It is also the safest and most diverse system in the world. It represents decades of public investment and planning.
As one example, in recent years, airlines have cut airline service to smaller cities by 20 percent. What would happen to these routes and the 46 public use airports around the state, many of which serve small and rural communities? How would other sectors of aviation fare, such as smaller airplanes and general aviation? General aviation represents an economic impact of more than $274 million annually in Utah. It provides critical access to communities around the state and enables our businesses to reach far off markets. It empowers farmers to survey and tend to their crops. General Aviation allows doctors to deliver specialized care to patents in remote communities and even supports direct point-to-point transportation of vital organs. General aviation is essential to the lifeblood of rural states such as Utah.
Congressional oversight of our Air Traffic Control system is the only way to guarantee that the nation’s air transportation system works in the interest of the public. For this reason, Congress should maintain its traditional role — not abdicate it.
Jake Garn is a former US senator from Utah.