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 “We will launch this air-travel revolution by modernizing the outdated system of air-traffic control.”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