President Donald Trump on Monday backed a controversial House GOP plan to wrest air traffic control away from the FAA, placing the safety of millions of airline passengers under a nonprofit that he said will perform better, cheaper and faster.
He also called for eliminating the current air traffic control system’s airline ticket and fuel taxes in favor of user fees that the new non-governmental entity would determine. Trump and his advisers have promised this new system would result in less fees for passengers and repeatedly noted that a similar nonprofit Canadian system has cut costs.
The proposal faces a tight deadline for Congress to act on it — the FAA’s authorization expires Sept. 30. And previous GOP attempts to move a similar proposal failed to even get floor time in the House last year, amid sharp opposition from Democrats, skepticism from Republicans in both chambers and qualms from small- and business-plane owners.
Echoing arguments by House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the White House is underpinning much of its stance on the argument that this shift will increase safety by realizing a long-running FAA initiative called NextGen. But critics of the proposal say the FAA is already on the cusp of realizing NextGen, an ongoing effort to shift from land-based radar to satellite-based navigation.
“After billions and billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work. Other than that it’s quite good,” Trump said during a speech Monday, echoing previous criticisms by the airline industry. “The previous administration spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade the system and totally failed, honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, a total waste of money.”
The FAA has said the major functionalities of NextGen will be online by January 2020. It has required airlines to be equipped by then with the electronic equipment that can communicate with the new technology.
Democrats, who have been in no mood to cooperate with the White House, panned the effort. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over aviation, said “handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take.”
And his House counterpart, Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said it’s a “bad idea” and that opponents on both sides of the aisle “have raised serious concerns about whether it would guarantee safety, protect national security, expedite new technology and keep our aviation system solvent.”
When asked about prospects for enacting the plan, Trump infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin responded earlier Monday that this is the “first time that you’ve had a Republican White House, House and Senate, and our hope is that unified nature of the politics will help us move this through where that wasn’t the case last year.”
According to the administration’s principles for the move, first obtained by POLITICO over the weekend, the White House would allow the current crop of air traffic controllers to retain their pay and benefits, including participation in federal health and retirement plans. That will likely ensure the support of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, though Monday the group said it is still evaluating the proposal.
However, it also does not appear to exempt general aviation — small and business planes — from the user fee system the new entity would create, and that means general aviation groups aren’t likely to support the plan.
In other words, these dynamics ensure that the White House, Shuster and other proponents of this approach will continue to face much the same headwinds that last year doomed Shuster’s bill.
After Trump’s speech, NATCA released a cautious statement saying only that they “look forward to reviewing the specifics … so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our union’s principles,” including protecting controllers’ rights and benefits.
When asked how the plan would protect general aviation and rural interests, Gribbin responded that the White House proposal rejiggers the makeup of the new entity’s governing board so that airlines have less sway overall, but he acknowledged that the general aviation community still isn’t on board.
“They’ve said they don’t like the proposal,” he said. “We understand the importance of making sure that GA has protected access to this airspace and we’re more than willing to work with them.”
But by Monday afternoon general aviation groups had unloaded on Trump’s overhaul plan. The National Business Aviation Association’s president and CEO Ed Bolen said the overhaul discussion is “really about the airlines’ push to gain more control over our air traffic control system, so that they can run it for their own benefit, and is a sideshow to a serious and constructive discussion about building on the progress currently underway on NextGen.”
And the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an influential group that represents the often vocal and well-heeled owners of small planes, unequivocally said it will not support a proposal that imposes user fees on any general aviation planes.
Beyond user fees, AOPA President Mark Baker said his group is “also concerned about the impact of these proposed reforms on general aviation based on what we have seen in other countries. We applaud President Trump’s calls to invest and improve our nation’s infrastructure including our airports. However, the U.S. has a very safe air traffic system today and we don’t hear complaints from our nearly 350,000 members about it.”
The air traffic control rollout on Monday kicks off a week dedicated to plans for revamping transportation and other kinds of infrastructure nationwide.