Bumpy Ride Ahead for Trump’s Air-Traffic-Control Plan

A proposal that couldn’t pass a Republican House still faces major obstacles.

An air-traffic controller works in the control tower at Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va. on Sept. 27.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
June 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture pro­pos­al has taken off—but it could face tur­bu­lence on the Hill.

Trump on Monday de­tailed his pro­pos­al to take the na­tion’s air-traffic con­trol­lers out of gov­ern­ment con­trol and in­stead put them un­der a non­profit board. That, the ad­min­is­tra­tion says, would help speed up the long-over­due up­grade from radar tech­no­logy, and would pro­tect the safety sys­tem from the whims of the fed­er­al budget pro­cess.

“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,” said Trump. “We will launch this air-travel re­volu­tion by mod­ern­iz­ing the out­dated sys­tem of air-traffic con­trol.”

The plan it­self is not new—of­fi­cials have been pitch­ing a sep­ar­a­tion from the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion since the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. But it’s nev­er made much head­way in Con­gress, thanks to near-un­an­im­ous op­pos­i­tion from Demo­crats and long-stand­ing in­dustry con­cerns.

While some of the out­side op­pos­i­tion has eroded in re­cent years, Demo­crats are still hold­ing firm.

“The safety of the fly­ing pub­lic should not be for sale,” said Sen. Bill Nel­son, rank­ing mem­ber on the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee. “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.”

The plan kicks off what the White House has deemed “in­fra­struc­ture week,” and will get an im­me­di­ate air­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill as Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary Elaine Chao test­i­fies on it be­fore the rel­ev­ant Sen­ate and House com­mit­tees this week.

It comes pre­pack­aged from Rep. Bill Shuster, the chair­man of the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee, who has tried for years to move an air-traffic-con­trol re­form. D.J. Grib­bin, a White House in­fra­struc­ture ad­viser, said it was “nat­ur­ally low-hanging fruit from a policy per­spect­ive,” es­pe­cially with a GOP-con­trolled Con­gress.

Plus, this was rolled out with a strong lob­by­ing con­stitu­ency, un­like oth­er policy pro­pos­als. The White House gathered former Re­pub­lic­an Trans­port­a­tion sec­ret­ar­ies and had a group of eight GOP Con­gress mem­bers, in­clud­ing Shuster, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy, Free­dom Caucus chair Mark Mead­ows, and Sen. Ted Cruz.

More im­port­antly, it also had the in-per­son back­ing of key in­dustry groups. Air­lines for Amer­ica CEO Nick Calio said the pro­pos­al would mean “le­gis­la­tion that gets gov­ern­ment out of the way so we can mod­ern­ize for the fu­ture and main­tain our glob­al lead­er­ship in avi­ation,” and the Air Line Pi­lots As­so­ci­ation also en­dorsed it.

The Na­tion­al Air Traffic Con­trol­lers As­so­ci­ation, the uni­on of air-traffic con­trol­lers, said in a state­ment that it was re­view­ing the pro­pos­al to “eval­u­ate wheth­er it sat­is­fies our uni­on’s prin­ciples,” but it has said it wants to move ahead on tech­no­logy. The uni­on pre­vi­ously op­posed privat­iz­a­tion ef­forts, but came aboard on Shuster’s pro­pos­al last year after en­sur­ing it would main­tain bar­gain­ing rights and wages.

But the in­dustry sup­port is com­plic­ated; Delta Air­lines has not been sup­port­ive of privat­iz­a­tion in the past and was non­com­mit­tal about Trump’s plan Wed­nes­day, and the gen­er­al-avi­ation in­dustry that serves rur­al areas has long been reti­cent.

The main thrust be­hind the spinoff ef­fort is tech­no­logy: The FAA has been work­ing for more than a dec­ade to up­date from radar tech­no­logy to a GPS sys­tem called Nex­t­Gen, which would re­duce delays and help planes fly more ef­fi­ciently. That up­grade faced early speed bumps in tech­no­logy pro­cure­ment and budget, and has been choppy ever since.

Sup­port­ers say an in­de­pend­ent board free of gov­ern­ment bur­eau­cracy—but one that still an­swers to the FAA for safety con­cerns—would be more nimble on tech­no­logy. Shuster said in a state­ment Monday that it was time to “un­leash the Amer­ic­an avi­ation spir­it” and “bring our avi­ation sys­tem in­to the 21st cen­tury.”

But crit­ics have said that the massive trans­fer—tax­pay­ers have spent some $53 bil­lion on air traffic over two dec­ades—would cre­ate more prob­lems than it would solve. Demo­crats have called it a giveaway to air­lines, and rur­al mem­bers have warned that it could re­strict ac­cess to less-prof­it­able areas. There are also con­cerns about how a non­gov­ern­ment­al board would in­ter­act with the De­fense De­part­ment.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion tweaked Shuster’s plan to de­flect some cri­ti­cism. Demo­crats had said the ori­gin­al House plan would give too much con­trol to private air­lines, who would have held four of 11 seats. The Trump plan, in­stead, gives only two of 13 seats to the air­lines (the oth­er seats would be filled by two uni­on rep­res­ent­at­ives, one mem­ber of the gen­er­al-avi­ation in­dustry, one air­port of­fi­cial, two gov­ern­ment rep­res­ent­at­ives, a CEO, and four in­de­pend­ent mem­bers se­lec­ted by the rest of the board).

The White House also said it would en­sure no loss of ac­cess for rur­al areas. Still, Na­tion­al Air Trans­port­a­tion As­so­ci­ation Pres­id­ent Mar­tin Hiller, who rep­res­ents gen­er­al avi­ation, said “ac­cess for rur­al Amer­ica will be lim­ited to their will­ing­ness to pay whatever the air­lines de­mand.”

Key mem­bers also re­mained on the fence. In the House, the chairs of the Ways and Means and Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees sty­mied Shuster’s bill last year over con­cerns it would sap con­gres­sion­al over­sight. Neither is­sued state­ments of sup­port Monday.

The Sen­ate, mean­while, has nev­er ser­i­ously con­sidered the pro­pos­al. Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee chair­man John Thune said only that “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.”

Mean­while, Shuster’s rank­ing mem­ber, Peter De­Fazio, said Demo­crats would work on “tar­geted re­forms” to speed up Nex­t­Gen im­ple­ment­a­tion. As for a privat­iz­a­tion plan, De­Fazio made his op­pos­i­tion clear.

“Privat­iz­a­tion was a bad idea when it was pro­posed in the last Con­gress, and it re­mains a bad idea today des­pite Pres­id­ent Trump’s sup­port,” he said.

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