WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser said Tuesday that the administration’s proposal to modernize U.S. air traffic control “probably” would not include a tax on general aviation or business aircraft.
“We’re probably not even going to tax general aviation,” Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, told a group of corporate executives at the White House. “There’s enough money in the aviation tax rate now.”
That could help sell the Trump proposal to opponents, including general aviation manufacturers and lawmakers from rural states.
Major airlines have been pushing to transfer control of the country’s airspace from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private, nonprofit board governed by the airlines.
General aviation manufacturers have opposed the plan because of concerns about how the fee structure might affect their business, and some members of Congress oppose it because it would circumvent the standard legislative process.
Cohn said current aviation taxes were enough to support the proposed changes, which would enable a faster conversion of air traffic control from land-based radar to more a more modern GPS system.
Fixing U.S. airspace was among the administration’s top infrastructure priorities, Cohn said. He noted that other countries had already updated their systems.
“A country that has Silicon Valley and all of the technology entrepreneurs we have, and we’re playing catch-up,” he said. “That’s embarrassing for us.”
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, tried to move legislation early last year to make the changes to U.S. airspace, but couldn’t get it to the House floor. Trump revived the proposal in his budget plan last month.
Congress must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of September, and the White House proposal could be a sticking point.
Lawmakers from general aviation manufacturing states, including Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., oppose removing air traffic control from the FAA. So do members of the House Appropriations Committee, including Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., whose rural district includes numerous general aviation airports.
Moran said his concerns about the impact to general aviation and small airports remained even if there was a promise of no tax increase.
“The question becomes if it’s privatized and made up of a board of people who are generally associated with the airlines, who is there to prevent an increase in cost to general aviation?” Moran said.
Moran warned that the proposal would take away authority from Congress and jeopardize services for small airports.
“If you have a private board that is making decisions,” he said, “there still is no voice for small-town airports and Congress has little or no ability to alter those decisions.”
Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, which opposes the change, expressed similar concerns.
“All of these decisions would be made according to what is in the private interests of members of the board, as opposed to Congress, which has direct accountability to public citizens and communities and businesses of all sizes,” she said in a statement.
Most major airlines support the proposal. So does the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
“This is a project that is so interesting and enticing,” Cohn said, “the unions support doing it.”
He enlisted the help of the executives gathered at the White House, many of whom fly in corporate jets, to bring the general aviation community on board. He asked House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was in the room Tuesday, to convince reluctant lawmakers.
“Everyone else in the system is going to be happy with this,” Cohn said.