Trump proposes privatizing US air traffic control

By Reuters/Dustin Volz, Mark Hosenball   June 6, 2017 | 01:31 am PT
Trump proposes privatizing US air traffic control
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event announcing the Air Traffic Control Reform Initiative in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. June 5, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Trump promised the 'really monumental reform' would deliver 'cheaper, faster, and safer travel' as well as an economic boost.

In the first salvo in a week-long push to overhaul America's infrastructure, President Donald Trump on Monday announced a plan to privatize the nation's air traffic control system.

In what he called an "air travel revolution," Trump promised the "really monumental reform" would deliver "cheaper, faster, and safer travel" as well as an economic boost that could be worth $25 billion to the economy.

"Our plan will get you where you need to go more quickly, more reliably, more affordable, and yes, for the first time in a long time, on time," Trump said in announcing the plan at the White House.

In fact the proposal to break off the air traffic function from the government's Federal Aviation Administration was first proposed during the Clinton administration, and was revived early last year in legislation introduced by Pennsylvania Republican representative Bill Shuster.

The plan would create a private non-profit corporation supported by user fees rather than taxes, a model used in many other countries, including Canada.

If approved by Congress, the FAA would retain its oversight of air travel safety, but its 30,000 air traffic controllers would move off the government's books.

DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure, acknowledged that the proposal -- which National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) supported in its previous iteration -- "had been percolating in DC for decades, so it was naturally low hanging fruit from policy perspective."

For a Trump White House beset by investigation into its ties with Russia, which is also struggling to gain traction on other legislative efforts including promised tax reform -- which so far exists only as a one-page outline -- and the health care overhaul, low-hanging fruit could give them a much-needed easy win.

This week also will feature a discussion on how to improve freight shipping on the inland waterway, a meeting with governors and mayors on how best to leverage budget resources and private investment to improve key infrastructure, and a speech by Trump Friday on a bid to slash the time needed to approve projects to just two years from an average of eight to 10 years.

As to the timing of a major infrastructure investment package, "We absolutely do feel it can be accomplished this year," Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for technology, told reporters.

Support from key groups

The White House could win support in Congress especially with the backing of key interest groups, including the airlines and the air traffic controllers union.

NATCA supported the 2016 version of the proposal, that included a federally chartered not-for-profit corporation, but said protecting the rights of the workers and ensuring safety will be key.

The union "shares the administration's commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System (NAS) with a stable, predictable funding stream," NATCA said in a statement Monday.

"We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control (ATC) reform legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our union’s principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce."

The airline industry group, Airlines for America (A4A), applauded the proposal, saying it will allow "enhanced safety, reduced delays, fuel savings, reduced emissions, increased capacity and greater operational efficiency."

The antiquated system used in the United States employs ground radar and paper slips "rather than GPS and advanced software," the statement said, noting that delays with the current system cost the economy up to $25 billion a year.

However, despite the pledge that the technology upgrade will benefit passengers,, the largest airline passenger advocacy organization, expressed "shock and dismay" over a plan it said would give more power to the airlines.

"Adopting this scheme would mean handing the airlines (for free) control over a core public asset, and providing them nearly unbridled power to extract new fees and increased taxes from passengers," the group's president, Paul Hudson, said in a statement.

Trump said his predecessor, Barack Obama, spent $7 billion to try to upgrade the air traffic control system and "totally failed."

"Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing ... We are still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work."

He noted that Canada is among the 50 countries that have adopted this model, having made the change 20 years ago, and cut costs significantly and handle 50 percent more traffic. "And we’re going to top them, actually, by a long shot."

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