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Airlines ask Trump to modernize the air traffic control system

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Gary C. Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, told President Trump today that modernizing the air traffic control (ATC) system would be its top priority for what the government can do to help airlines, noting that money spent on ATC had not helped improve it in the past.

The comments came at a meeting between President Trump and airline executives at the White House. Other attendees at the meeting included the CEOs of United and Delta, the president of US operations for UPS, and the CEO of Los Angeles World Airports, parent company of LAX.

"I hear we're spending billions and billions of dollars,” said the president about the nation’s air traffic control system. “It's a system that's totally out of whack." He also asked why the airlines would allow the government to invest in a faulty system, only to be informed that the airlines were not “in control” of those decisions.

“We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays,” Trump said while reporters were invited into the room to take photos of the group. “We have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports.”

The FAA has been working for years on an air traffic control modernization program called NextGen, though members of the public have expressed concern over redesigns of airport arrival and departure routes that are at the heart of the program. Those flight path changes could increase airplane noise over smaller areas, while reducing noise in others. Other changes allow towers to issue text-based departure clearances to pilots instead of requiring all communications to be via voice radio.

As part of a reauthorization for the FAA, Republicans in Congress have proposed a spinoff of ATC into a private, nonprofit entity like those used in Canada and the United Kingdom. That reauthorization is expected to be handled this year, and is one of the major tasks ahead for Elaine Chao, the new secretary of transportation.

Update 06:54pm ET: The FAA issued the following statement today:

The FAA has spent $7.5 billion in congressionally appropriated funds on the air traffic modernization program known as NextGen over the past seven years. That investment has resulted in $2.7 billion in benefits to passengers and the airlines to date, and is expected to yield more than $160 billion in benefits through 2030.

NextGen is one of the most ambitious infrastructure and modernization projects in U.S. history. Its successful, ongoing rollout is the result of rigorous acquisition, program and portfolio management, and stakeholder engagement with the airline industry and other members of the aviation community. The FAA invited airline stakeholders to help develop the blueprint for NextGen and they continue to have a seat at the table in setting NextGen priorities and investments through the NextGen Advisory Committee.