The Trump administration kicked off “Infrastructure Week” on Monday with a proposal to privatize air traffic control, transferring control over American airspace from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private, nonprofit board. In a largely scripted speech from the White House, which was followed by a faux signing ceremony of airspace “principles” to transmit to Congress, Trump predicted an “air travel revolution.” Handing over control to a private board, Trump said, would save the government money, reduce the cost of flying, and make air travel more efficient.
Trump has long been obsessed with the nation’s airports, and has in the past cited his personal pilot as an authority on all things air. But the project’s most enthusiastic champion in the White House is chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs. “Air traffic control is probably the single most exciting thing we can do,” Cohn said in April. With the newfound efficiency of GPS navigation, he figured, “we will save over 25 percent of the jet fuel in this country.”
Cohn’s enthusiasm should indicate the curious political niche occupied by air traffic control privatization. The current plan is similar to the one proposed last year by Rep. Bill Shuster, the Republican from Western Pennsylvania who chairs the House Transportation Committee. (It must be said that his romantic partner at the time was a top lobbyist from Airlines for America, a group representing the nation’s top commercial carriers that has pushed for corporatizing air traffic control.) Shuster’s proposal was opposed by several key GOP senators, and never made it to a vote in the House. This March, a bipartisan group of four senators wrote an open letter opposing privatization. Oh, and the original champion of air traffic control privatization was Al Gore.
Which is all to say that Trump has picked a rather thorny subject on which to wage his first infrastructure battle.
The primary objective here is to finally convert airspace navigation from land-based radar to GPS, a $36 billion project known as NextGen. It’s certainly true that the FAA has moved at a snail’s pace modernizing American airspace. The implementation of NextGen has been riddled with delays, turnover, and unrealistic timelines, and the FAA itself has cited the organization’s culture as a “major stumbling block.”
Privatization supporters say the independent ATC board would free NextGen from the bureaucratic strictures of a federal agency, including its procurement rules and the vagaries of operating under the control of Congress. (You never know when it might shut the government down.) The nonprofit ATC board would swap federal funding (derived from taxes on fuel and ticket sales) for direct contributions from airline stakeholders. It would also take on debt.
Everyone agrees on the advantages of the proposed modernization, which my colleague Daniel Gross pegged as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Planes hooked up to the satellite-based system can fly more flexible routes, better handle adverse weather conditions, and land and take off in closer succession.
And yet, putting aside any philosophical objection to privatization, there are big questions about what the ATC board would accomplish. The bipartisan Senate group that opposes privatization worries about the loss of progress on NextGen already being made, consumer mistreatment (consumer’s rights groups are opposed), and lack of oversight. Supporters of privatization, like the former Clinton and Obama official Dorothy Robyn, say that’s part of the point: “FAA decisions on everything from investment to facilities are fair game for political interference… Members opposed to the loss of jobs in their district have long blocked large-scale consolidation of the FAA’s aging and inefficient facilities.”
It’s true that dozens of countries have managed to effect a similar transition to a private airspace operator, including Canada, whose success is seen as a model by Cohn, Shuster, and others. But Canada’s air traffic is one-tenth of our own, and critics say it’s not a suitable model for how privatization might work in the United States.
The big issue, of course, is who would run the board. Privatization would vest more power in the hands of the country’s biggest airlines, who would presumably occupy several seats on the board—and cover its expenses. “In my experience, ‘stakeholder’ airlines don’t specify, build, buy or operate information technology solutions particularly well or cost-effectively,” writes the aviation consultant Robert Mann Jr. for Brookings. If airlines want control over airspace, first they should demonstrate their own commitment to improving the system, he argues. That, certainly, is something anyone who’s flown recently can agree on.
Finally, there’s the related question of money. Even if you believe that the board would handle management and technology better than the FAA, its revenue would be determined by a fee system that would replace the current federal taxes on fuel and ticket sales. A more profit-driven ATC system would likely favor the larger, more profitable flights out of major airports in the nation’s biggest cities, at the expense of the smaller, rural airports whose operations they subsidize.
That’s a trade-off that even a Republican Congress friendly to privatization in principle is constituted to avoid.