WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is giving full-throttle support to privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system, a top priority for American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and other major carriers.
The Republican, a former airline owner, announced the stand in the budget blueprint released Thursday by the White House. He listed it as the top bullet point for the U.S. Transportation Department, saying the move would make the system “more efficient and innovative.”
The presidential blessing marks a major win for the airline industry, which says an aging air traffic control system has contributed to congestion and delays.
“Our system is safe, but it is outdated and not as efficient as it should — or could — be,” said Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America. “We need to stop accepting pockets of progress and put in place a modernized system that better serves the traveling and shipping public.”
But the Federal Aviation Administration has defended the billions of dollars spent on a NextGen program that’s meant to modernize the system with satellite-based technology. A tough fight remains in Congress, where some have expressed concern about big airlines horning out others.
And the Alliance for Aviation Across America said in a news release that the president’s proposal was “unfortunate.”
“This proposal would allow certain private interests to make critical system decisions ranging from infrastructure funding, to taxes and fees, according to their own best interest rather than that of the public,” said the group, which represents private pilot groups and rural airports.
Many of the big airlines last month brought their air traffic control concerns straight to the president.
Gary Kelly, chief executive of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, told Trump at a White House meeting focused on the aviation industry that privatization of those operations was the “single biggest opportunity for aviation.”
Trump didn’t reveal then whether he backed the idea. But he offered a sympathetic ear, telling the group that the current system is “totally out of whack.”
“It’s way over budget. It’s way behind schedule. And when it’s completed, it’s not going to be a good system,” he said, also pushing the idea that the FAA should be run by a pilot. “Other than that, it’s fantastic.”
That presidential broadside caused the FAA last month to defend its NextGen program, which has been beset by funding woes and chronic delays. The agency said the effort was “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 agency said in a prepared statement.
Trump’s latest move — touted as a way to “benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall” — is preliminary and nonbinding. But it will only intensify the focus on air traffic control in Congress.
Foreign subsidies and air traffic control on the radar of airlines meeting with Trump on Thursday
The major airlines have a key booster in Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He’s been firmly behind the idea to move the air traffic operations to a nonprofit group.
But others in Congress have balked, causing the effort to stall last year.
Some groups fear that the big airlines would have outsize influence on the nonprofit’s board. Delta Air Lines notably doesn’t support the idea. And some officials say it doesn’t make sense to mess with one of the safest air-travel systems in the world.
“We are also concerned about costs and access,” a group of smaller-town mayors wrote to lawmakers this month in a letter released by the Alliance for Aviation Across America.