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Trump wants to modernize air travel by turning over control to the big airlines

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Consumer groups fear privatizing air traffic control would harm passengers

New Communications System Demonstrated At Miami Int'l Airport Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Today, President Donald Trump endorsed a plan to hand over oversight of the nation’s airspace to a nonprofit corporation that will likely be largely controlled by the major airlines. Republicans argue that privatizing air traffic control will help save money and fast-track important technological upgrades. But Democrats and consumer groups criticize that plan as a corporate giveaway that will inevitably harm passengers.

Trump announced his support for the proposal as part of his administration’s kick-off of “infrastructure week,” in which the president hopes to reclaim multiple weeks of bad headlines by highlighting his campaign promise to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. Trump is expected to travel to Ohio later this week to galvanize support for his still amorphous plan.

The air traffic reform proposal, which fell short in Congress last year, would transfer oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a government-sanctioned, independent entity that would be made up of appointees from industry stakeholders. The effort picked up steam when the union representing air traffic controllers endorsed the plan, citing years of understaffing by the FAA.

Composite photo of every plane that took off from LAX over the course of a day.
Photo by Mike Kelley

Some passengers may balk at the idea of handing over day-to-day management of the nation’s highly complex air traffic control system to the same companies that rack up tens of thousands of customer complaints a year, and occasionally physically assault or drag passengers off their planes. But the Trump administration argues this is the only way to modernize a system that still runs on technology that’s been around since World War II.

Many supporters, though, conflate the bill to privatize air traffic control with an ongoing effort to modernize the technology that powers air traffic control. The FAA is already years into a technology upgrade known as NextGen, which involves moving from the current system based on radar and voice communications to one based on satellite navigation and digital communications. The FAA wants to use GPS technology to shorten routes, save time and fuel, and reduce traffic delays by increasing capacity.

Supporters of the White House’s plan say a new, corporate-run agency would be able to complete the shift to NextGen on a much faster timeline. They argue that congressional squabbling, including the occasional government shutdown and controller furloughs, has made for inconsistent funding for the FAA. “If we want to continue to have the safest air traffic control system in the world, we need to modernize technology and ensure that the system cannot continue to be interrupted by Congressional budget impasses,” writes Chris Ward, former head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the busiest airports in the nation. “This approach keeps costs down, reduces delays and enhances safety.”

Trump has adopted the belief that privatization equals better technology. “Today we’re proposing to American air travel into the future — finally,” Trump said during today’s announcement at the White House. He later sat at a desk and signed a list of “principles” on air traffic control — basically his support for the proposal in written form — in a bit of stagecraft designed to look like a bill-signing.

But privatization won’t directly affect the rollout of NextGen technology, and critics argue that conflating the two amount to nothing other than a vague promise to speed up the timeline of the rollout by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles.

Critics also point out that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that the privatization effort would increase the deficit by $20 billion over 10 years, which could undermine the implementation of NextGen technology.

Trump’s plan is seen as identical to a bill proposed by Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster, who chairs the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. (In 2015, Politico reported that Shuster was dating a top lobbyist for Airlines for America, an industry group that supports the privatization effort. Shuster has said the relationship doesn’t effect his policymaking decisions.)

Unsurprisingly, many of the big airlines support the privatization plan. They’ve been lobbying Congress for almost two decades to support separating air traffic control from the FAA, noting that nations like Canada, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK have all shifted control of their airspace to semi-private entities.

But not all of the major carriers are on board. Last year, Delta Air Lines left a major industry group in protest to the privatization effort, citing a study it says predicts that traveler fees could skyrocket 30 percent under a private system. Other critics note that semi-private air traffic groups in countries like Canada and the UK have needed taxpayer-funded bailouts to make up for budget shortfalls.

“Privatization supporters say that shifting the funding for air traffic operations to a private group will lessen the burden on taxpayers,” Steve Dickson, senior VP of flight operations for Delta, wrote in an op-ed last year. “But in practice, it has never worked that way.”

But the bill’s future already seems bleak. Key Republicans say the bill won’t go anywhere without Democratic support in the Senate. And after an extremely rocky start to his presidency, it seems unlikely that Trump can say or do anything to garner votes from across the aisle.