President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 5, 2017. Trump is making the case for privatizing the nation's air traffic control system.
Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Trump endorses spinoff of air traffic control

President Donald Trump said he’ll push a plan to spin off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration, a proposal backers say would speed modernization but one that has also drawn strong opposition.

The administration’s proposal, outlined Monday, includes moving air traffic control functions to a private, non-profit entity and shifting the funding source to user fees instead of taxes.

“We live in a modern age and yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past,” Trump said during a press conference Monday.

“The FAA has been trying to upgrade our nation’s air traffic control system for a long period of years, but after billions and billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays, we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”

Under the plan — a previous version of which died last year in Congress — FAA air traffic control assets would be transferred at no charge to a not-for-profit cooperative. It would operate under control of a special board and be subject to FAA oversight.

The administration is outlining its plan to Congress, which will again face the question of how to fund and structure the air traffic control system during another congressional fight over FAA funding reauthorization. The agency’s current spending authority expiring Sept. 30.

Metro Atlanta has a significant stake in the issue, with the world’s busiest airport and three air traffic control facilities in the region. About 500 controllers work at Hartsfield-Jackson International, an approach control center in Peachtree City and a regional center in Hampton.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers union, said it will review the reform legislation. Last year the union supported a failed spin-off bill that was championed by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the House transportation committee.

The union said Monday it shares a commitment to modernization and a “stable, predictable funding stream” for the national airspace.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines in the past argued that privatization “is a bad idea,” saying it would be a distraction to existing FAA modernization programs and wouldn’t fix the problem. Former Delta CEO Richard Anderson was chairman of a NextGen advisory committee to the FAA.

Delta’s position has been less clear since Anderson retired last year. On Monday, Delta’s chief legal officer, Peter Carter, attended the event at the White House and the airline said in a written statement that it “looks forward to working with the Administration and Congress on our shared goal of modernizing U.S. airspace.”

“We remain committed to working together to identify ways to reduce delays, improve efficiency, and enhance airline performance while maximizing safety and minimizing costs,” Delta spokeswoman Elizabeth Wolf said in a written statement.

U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, also attended the ceremony, where Trump signed documents on the initiative.

“I think the question is can we do better than what we’re doing in government work today,” said Woodall, who is on the transportation committee. “The unions say that we can. Our experience with other nations says that we can.”

The lobbying group Airlines for America, which represents major carriers other than Delta, has pushed the privatization plan.

The group says the shift would make air traffic control less dependent on Congress for appropriations and less subject to political whims that have hindered modernization under the FAA.

The issue is one reason Delta left the group, known as A4A, in 2015.

NextGen is a long-term effort to shift the system to satellite-based navigation with digital communication, which can allow more direct routing and closer spacing between planes, boosting system capacity. Work on NextGen improvements started in 2007 and continues.

Consumer group FlyersRights.org voiced opposition to the privatization proposal. “Adopting this scheme would mean handing the airlines (for free) control over a core public asset,” said its president, Paul Hudson.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s backing, on top of Republican control of Congress, will change the political prospects of a spin-off.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is on the Senate commerce committee overseeing the FAA, said “the safety of the flying public should not be for sale…. Handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take.”

General aviation groups, which include private pilots and business jet users, have also opposed privatization.

The National Business Aviation Association said it is “deeply concerned” with Trump’s support for privatization.

“No one should confuse ATC modernization with ATC privatization — the two are very different concepts,” the group said. Privatization “is really about the airlines’ push to gain more control over our air traffic control system, so that they can run it for their own benefit.”

The National Air Transport Association, which represents general aviation businesses, in a statement said “most current delays are attributed to airline systems, suggesting that just because something is done by the private sector does not make it necessarily better.”

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