BY JAMES FARRELL
Thousands of planes clutter Queens’ airspace. Tens of thousands of people are employed at its two hub airports. And for residents, a turbulent connection exists between what happens in the sky and what life is like on the ground.
From tourism and employment to the persistent issue of excessive plane noise, aviation plays an outsized role in the daily hum of Queens life. So, on June 5, when President Donald Trump announced a commitment to privatizing the air traffic control system—taking the responsibility of air traffic control away from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and putting it under the purview of a nongovernmental entity—many in Queens took notice. The proposal’s implications for the borough, on everything from noise pollution to the economy, is the paramount concern.
The debate surrounding privatizing air traffic control is not new. Even Trump’s latest proposal is structured around an already-existing bill, previously introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster. It would establish a non-profit entity with a board of directors made up of airline, FAA union, general aviation and airport representatives to take control of the FAA’s air traffic duties, relegating the FAA to an oversight position. The goal would be to reduce government bureaucracy, modernize the traffic systems and yield “reduced wait times, increased route efficiency and far fewer delays,” in Trump’s words. But skeptics fear that reducing the government’s role could mean fewer regulations, more power for airlines and corporate stakeholders, and, potentially, higher costs.
The dialogue has focused almost exclusively on passengers, ignoring the potential effects that privatization could have on communities—such as Queens—that lie beneath plane-heavy skies, contends Warren Schreiber, the interim co-chairman of the New York Community Aviation Roundtable, which brings local stakeholders together to discuss airplane noise mitigation.
“What does [privatization] do for the people on the ground—the people who are under flight paths, the people who are being subjected to excessive airplane noise, particulate emissions from the airplanes, all the health hazards associated with airplane noise and emissions?” Schreiber said. “I don’t see any mention made of that at all.”
Schreiber and other airplane noise advocates argue that the FAA’s previous attempts to modernize the air traffic system contributed to today’s excessive noise problems. The FAA is currently instituting satellite-based navigation technology to increase safety and efficiency through an ongoing initiative known as NextGen. But as Schreiber and other plane noise advocates argue, this has meant an increase in loud flights following fixed paths over Flushing, White-stone and other eastern Queens neighborhoods near the airports.
“If that whole operation is privatized, what I’ve seen is, they think they can move forward more expeditiously with NextGen,” said Barbara Brown, Schreiber’s interim co-chairwoman on the roundtable. “Those concerns about NextGen may be heightened if that happens. There’s very little that I’ve seen, in any of that, that there’s a concern about people on the ground.”
The roundtable, formed in 2014, had rocky origins—members fiercely debated the bylaws for years before they were finally approved in February. The roundtable has yet to discuss privatization, Brown said, especially since it has not met since February. But the FAA is an advisory member of the roundtable.
Susan Carroll, a former Flushing resident who sits on the roundtable as a representative for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, said that in her experience, the FAA has not always been forthcoming with the community. But she’s concerned that a private entity—which could have a board heavily represented by airlines and other business interests—may reduce accountability.
“I don’t really know if I want the airlines in charge instead,” she said. “I’m kind of worried that we’ll have even less of a voice under a privatized system than we do now. I mean, who would we complain to?”
Janet McEneaney—founder of Queens Quiet Skies, a noise advocacy group—said that plane-related public health issues should be charged to a public agency better equipped to handle it. Currently, noise complaints become entangled in a bureaucracy comprising the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports, and the FAA, which regulates airspace.
“The ones that should be accountable for our public health concerns are [the Environmental Protection Agency],” McEneaney said.
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) recently introduced a bill that would put the EPA in charge of addressing airplane noise issues—she introduced similar legislation in 2015, but it did not pass. Meng’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Little Neck), chairman of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus—originally founded by Meng—shared concerns regarding privatization.
“Privatizing the FAA—and thus allowing airlines to control the skies—could have all kinds of negative consequences, including possibly making noise levels worse around JFK and LaGuardia,” he said. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders to try and reduce the disturbing levels of noise residents are experiencing.”
Privatization’s effects on Queens could extend beyond public health. JFK and LaGuardia employ a total of 50,000 people and contribute a total of $55.6 billion in economic activity, according to numbers from the Queens Chamber of Commerce. On an economic front, privatization could yield some benefits if successful—greater efficiency and more flights could generate more opportunities in Queens.
“If we can increase utilization at the airports, especially at different hours that don’t impact the residents as much, that’s a win,” said Tom Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
Some airlines have been eager to privatize, with the exception of Delta, which conducted a 2016 study arguing that privatization could lead to increased costs. Following Trump’s announcement, Airlines for America—a trade organization representing United, Southwest, JetBlue and others—issued a statement praising his leadership, hoping for “legislation that gets government out of the way.” The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) also praised Trump’s commitment to modernizing air traffic, but said that it hopes to review more specifics about the proposal to ensure that air traffic workers’ rights and overall safety standards are maintained.
A number of groups representing FAA employees, such as the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), have come out against privatization. PASS issued a statement calling privatization a “risky and unnecessary step” that could derail progress on ongoing initiatives to increase safety and efficiency, such as NextGen.
Some argue that it’s difficult to judge the impact of privatization on specific locations, such as JFK or LaGuardia, since that could be swayed by the interests of the yet-to-be-created private entity.
“The largest single block of people on the board would be the airlines, so they would get to determine where air traffic services would be provided,” said Luke Drake, a vice president of PASS for a region that includes Queens.
Drake said that when Canada privatized its airspace, it led to cuts in technical staffing.
But the FAA seemed open to changes.
“I support looking at new ways to help us provide stable and sufficient funding to more rapidly modernize our system, while maintaining the highest level of safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “The proposal to create a separate, nongovernment air traffic control service provider is a step in a process that needs to involve all users in the airspace system and deliver benefits to the system as a whole.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Aviation Roundtable as the “New York City Aviation Roundtable.” It is the “New York Community Aviation Roundtable.”