Trump Proposes Air Traffic Control Privatization

Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Trump on Monday proposed shifting the nation’s air traffic control functions from the federal government to a private nonprofit organization, and held a signing ceremony for a list of principles to send to Congress.

In many ways, the Trump administration’s plan resembles the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act, a bill introduced last year by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. Indeed, the White House’s statement of principles on the issue cited Shuster’s bill as “a good foundation.”

Under the Trump proposal, air traffic control operations would be removed from the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration and become a private nonprofit group, governed by an independent board of directors made up of representatives from airlines, employee unions, and general aviation and airport trade groups.

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The 30,000 employees who perform air traffic control would shift to the new nonprofit entity, and the new organization would be required to honor existing collective bargaining agreements. Instead of taxes funding the organization, the new nonprofit entity would establish a user fee levied on flight passengers.

In a speech Monday, Trump said the plan would improve the United States’ ability to implement a system for tracking aircraft via GPS, rather than radio and radar communications.

“[Air traffic controllers] keep us safe every day, even though they are forced to use this badly outdated system,” Trump said. “That is why we want to give them access to capital markets and investors so they can obtain the best, newest and safest technology available.”

DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure, said in a briefing with reporters that the administration’s proposal will improve safety because it allows the FAA to conduct more objective oversight over air traffic control.

“There would be greater oversight because you won’t have the same agency overseeing its own potential errors,” he said. “The FAA has done a great job, but it’s just a good management practice to make them separate.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association supported Shuster’s bill last year.  On Monday, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi issued a tentatively optimistic statement about Trump’s proposal.

“NATCA shares the administration’s commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System with a stable, predictable funding stream,” Rinaldi said. “We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our union’s principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce.”

But other employee groups remain unconvinced. A group of seven unions representing FAA employees, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the FAA Managers Association and the National Federation of Federal Employees, sent a letter last month to members of Congress opposing any effort to privatize air traffic control.

“Quite simply, overhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic control from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth,” the groups wrote. “Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, noted in a statement that any bill reforming air traffic control would require Democratic support, which historically has not been forthcoming when privatization is on the table.

“The [FAA’s] effort to improve air travel safety and efficiency by modernizing air traffic control has been hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and poor planning,” Thune said. “[As] we move forward in discussing potential reforms, getting a bill to President Trump’s desk will require bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community on a way forward.”

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