President Donald Trump is calling on Congress to turn the nation’s air traffic control system over to a private, non-profit organization in an effort to modernize air travel and lower costs.
“Our plan will get you where you need to go more quickly, more reliably, more affordably and yes, for the first time in a long time, on time,” he said today during a briefing. “We will launch this air travel revolution by modernizing the outdated system of air traffic control.”
He said that under the Federal Aviation Administration’s current system, air traffic controllers use archaic radar technology and ground-based radio systems to track planes. Passengers sitting inside the planes have better GPS navigation right in their pockets, he said.
“For too long our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times at the tarmac, slowing of commerce and travel that cost us billions and billions of dollars in lost hours and lost dollars themselves,” Trump said.
The FAA has been trying to get up to speed with its Next Generation Air Transport System, or NextGen, but analysts say it’s fallen short of expectations. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office said that major elements of NextGen should be in place by 2025, but that the system wouldn’t be fully implemented until 2030.
Some airlines, such as Southwest and Alaska Airlines, have long advocated privatization of the air traffic control system. Others, such as Delta, are less enthusiastic and say such a move could increase travel costs by 20 percent or more.
Some congressional critics of privatization lay the blame for air traffic snags on the airlines rather than the FAA.
“While the FAA operated the system every day in 2016 without any widespread glitches, it was the airlines that failed to manage their own IT systems, with large-scale disruptions on at least 15 occasions,” Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in a January news release.
Today Larsen issued a statement saying that Trump’s rationale for privatization “simply does not pass the smell test.”
Larsen noted that flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are running more efficiently because of NextGen, and said billions of dollars’ worth of benefits to the airline industry could be at risk.
“Privatization jeopardizes these efforts, as well as any hope for a bipartisan, comprehensive Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that moves the needle on the many aviation issues upon which Democrats and Republicans agree,” he said.
Administration officials emphasized that the privatized air traffic control system would be managed by a self-financing, non-profit entity, with user fees providing the funding. “All surpluses will be plowed back to be re-invested in the system,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao explained.
The plan calls for creating a board with representatives from airlines, unions, trade groups and the federal government. The FAA would continue to play a role in safety oversight.
Chao and Trump both praised air traffic controllers and said they would benefit from more up-to-date technology. Controllers and other employees of the newly created entity would no longer be working for the federal government, but the new organization would honor existing labor agreements.
The White House plan will make its way to Congress, where it faces an uncertain fate.