Calling air traffic control’s technology “ancient, broken, antiquated” and “horrible,” President Donald Trump on Monday announced a plan to split the system that directs airplane routes over domestic airspace from the Federal Aviation Administration into a private nonprofit company.
Trump said his plan was “taking the first important step for clearing the runway for more jobs, lower prices and much, much, much better transportation.”
Trump’s announcement kicked off a week of events where he expects to unveil several strategies for dealing with public infrastructure.
The Kansas City area is home to about 310 air traffic controllers. Those jobs are spread among Kansas City International Airport, the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport and a Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center in Olathe. The center in Olathe is one of 22 across the country and covers traffic in a 192,000-square-mile region.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the 310 figure does not include management, staff specialists, trainers and other staff that design and maintain air traffic control’s systems in Kansas City.
The idea of privatizing Air Traffic Control is a continuation of a theme advanced by the Trump administration of privatizing government services or tapping private capital and investment for public infrastructure projects.
It also occurs as Kansas City has invited offers for companies interested in privately financing a roughly $1 billion project to reconfigure KCI’s three-terminal design into a single building.
White House officials said the idea of privatizing air traffic control has percolated in Washington, D.C., since the Clinton administration. More than 50 countries, they said, have adopted a similar approach.
“Unfortunately, we are not the first coming to this idea, but it has been proven in other countries around the world,” said D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure, in a briefing on Monday with reporters.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran disagreed with the Trump administration’s stated benefits of air traffic control privatization.
”Proposals to privatize air traffic control threaten the reliable transportation options provided by small airports and the general aviation community for millions of Americans. All but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt by this proposal,” Moran said in a statement to the McClatchy Washington D.C. bureau.
“Privatization eliminates the chance for Congress and the American people to provide oversight, creates uncertainty in the marketplace and is likely to raise costs for consumers.”
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said the country needed a modernized air traffic control.
“We need a modernized air traffic control system that allows all types of aviation, large and small, to operate efficiently and safely,” Roberts said in a statement. “Any legislation that moves forward will need to ensure a level playing field between general aviation and commercial aviation.”
Labor unions and airlines have criticized air traffic control under the FAA, particularly the inconsistent funding levels from the federal government through rounds of sequestration and belt-tightening. That has led to reduced staffing levels and the slow implementation of new technology.
“We live in a modern age, yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past,” Trump said. “The FAA has been trying to upgrade our nation’s air traffic control system for a long period of years.”
Air traffic controller staffing was at 11,753 in 2012 and has since dipped to 10,532. That’s more than 2,300 short of the FAA’s operational target, according to Paul Rinaldi, union president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association during testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on May 17.
Rinaldi told the congressional committee that the NATCA supported a 2016 bill called the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act that bore similarities to Trump’s proposal. Rinaldi said the AIRR bill, introduced by Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, would provide stable and predictable funding to air traffic control while protecting union members’ employment benefits and negotiated agreements while they transition from being federal employees to private workers.
The Trump proposal pledges to honor existing labor agreements.
The White House believes that air traffic control under private supervision will be able to adopt the FAA’s Next Generation technology sooner.
Trump said he’s seen the technology that air traffic control could adopt and said other countries have superior systems in place.
“Ours is going to top it by a lot,” Trump said.
The Alliance for Aviation Across America, a nonprofit association of businesses, small airports and elected officials, denounced Trump’s plan.
Air traffic control will answer to a nonprofit board that would include representatives from airlines, labor unions, general aviation trade groups and airports. The nonprofit would be funded by user fees and could borrow money.
The White House pointed to Canada, which privatized its air traffic control, as a comparison to its proposal. Nav Canada, a nonprofit, owns the country’s air navigation system.
“Nav Canada has recently announced yet another reduction in pricing, so we’ll see lower prices overall that will be passed through to consumers,” Gribbin said in a briefing Monday. “And we will enhance safety.”
Southwest Airlines, the largest airline user of KCI, said Monday it supported a plan to move air traffic control to a private nonprofit because it could access stable funding through access to bond markets and long-term capital plans, coupled with efficient procurement and human resources functions.
“Such a system has performed superbly in Canada for over the past 20 years,” said Michelle Agnew, a Southwest Airlines spokeswoman, in an email to The Star. “Canada is the gold standard when it comes to ATC technology. Over the past 20 years, more than 50 counties from around the world have successfully separated 24/7 ATC operation from the government regulator.”
A March 7 letter signed by mayors of several cities, including some from Missouri and Kansas, cast doubt on the comparison to the Canadian model.
Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt
Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise