President Trump’s budget request for fiscal 2018 effectively would privatize air traffic control, a move that the union representing those workers has supported.
Under the budget, control of air traffic would be moved to a nonprofit organization from the Federal Aviation Administration by 2021.
The move follows a proposal by House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who has long argued that the FAA has failed to modernize its air traffic control system. In legislation introduced last year, Shuster proposed that the nonprofit would be governed by a board including the transportation secretary, people nominated by the airline companies and representatives of the air traffic controllers’ and pilots’ unions. The board members could not be employees of any industry stakeholders.
“At its core, establishing an independent, not-for-profit organization to provide air traffic service, regulated at arm’s length by the FAA, is a transformational government reform that is essential to move America towards a 21st century aviation system that is without equal in the world,” Shuster said Thursday. The chairman has said that pursuing the privatization would be a top priority of his committee.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has not issued a statement regarding the budget, and a spokesman could not be reached for comment. However, the union endorsed Shuster’s proposal when he introduced his legislation last year.
In testimony before Shuster’s committee this month, union President Paul Rinaldi again endorsed the concept. He said creating a nonprofit entity could address one of the union’s major concerns: Because the FAA is subject to the congressional appropriations process, its operations can be disrupted. He noted that the agency has had “a partial shutdown, a complete government shutdown as well as numerous threatened shutdowns” in the past five years.
“Moving operations out of federal control would ensure more stable funding,” Rinaldi said, adding that that approach has worked in other countries. “In theory, this model could deliver results similar to those we have seen in Canada, where NAV CANADA has proved itself to be a safe and innovative air navigation service provider over the past two decades.”
That qualified support was also contingent on the union’s contract with FAA management carrying over to the new entity, which Shuster’s 2016 legislation provided for.
Airlines for America, the main industry trade group, backed the proposal as well. “The president’s leadership on air traffic control reform will ultimately reduce federal spending, shrink the size of the federal government and reduce taxes for passengers. By prioritizing ATC reform in his budget, the president has taken a bold step that will lead to benefits for decades to come and maintain our role as the global leader in aviation,” said President Nicholas E. Calio.
Critics argue the plan would give airlines too much control over the nonprofit. “This risky proposal would add to our national deficit, threaten access to small towns and rural communities, decimate small businesses with new, unnecessary user fees; and, give the big airlines even more power over our air transportation system at a time when they are actually in need of greater oversight,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a coalition group that includes small airports and local government officials.