President Trump announced plans on Monday to separate air traffic control from the federal government as part of a broader push to modernize the country’s infrastructure.
The White House had already signaled support for the controversial idea, which would hand over the nation’s air navigation system to a nonprofit or nongovernmental agency.
But Trump signed formal legislative principles outlining the spin-off plan this week, putting some muscle behind the effort, which has previously failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
Trump unveiled the proposal in the White House’s East Room alongside a number of airline executives, Vice President Pence, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) — a chief congressional supporter of the plan.
“For too many years our country has tolerated delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac, and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs billion and billions of dollars,” Trump said.
“Today we’re proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally. We will launch this air travel revolution by modernizing the outdated system of air traffic control. It’s about time.”
Trump’s proposal would transfer the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic control operations to an independent outside agency over three years “at no charge,” removing 30,000 FAA employees from the federal payroll. The FAA would still maintain safety oversight, however.
The administration billed the proposal as a way to speed up long-stalled modernization efforts at the FAA, which still uses paper strips to track flights instead of a precision-based GPS system. It also would remove operations from the political uncertainty of the annual appropriations process in Congress, officials said.
Trump called the current technology system “horrible” and “antiquated,” and blasted the Obama administration for its slow progress on the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
“The previous administration spent over $7 billion to upgrade the system and totally failed,” he said. “Honestly, they didn’t know what they hell they were doing.”
The proposal comes as the White House launches a string of high-profile events this week aimed at ramping up support for Trump’s infrastructure initiative.
Officials told reporters they decided to kick the campaign off with air traffic control reform because Shuster already had a comprehensive package put together, saying it seemed like “naturally low-hanging fruit.”
The spin-off model fits in with the major theme underlying Trump’s broad infrastructure initiative: that the federal government doesn’t have all the necessary resources to maintain the country’s vast infrastructure and should seek more help from the private sector.
Although the White House plans to move air traffic control reform separately from a $1 trillion infrastructure package, officials said it’s up to Congress how to tackle both initiatives.
The plan would maintain safety, improve route efficiency and reduce delays, because a corporation would deliver cheaper and faster results than the government, White House officials said.
Many other developed nations around the world have set up a similar outside agency, which would raise money through user fees instead of taxes, have the authority to borrow funds and access capital, and be governed by a board of directors appointed by users of the system.
The corporation’s board would consist of 13 members: Two would represent the airlines, two would represent unions, one would represent general aviation, one would represent airports and two would represent the government as a whole. Then those members, along with the board’s CEO, would select four independent members.
The board makeup represents a major difference from a similar spin-off proposal backed by Shuster, which stalled in the House last year.
The change is designed to win more support from rural communities and general aviation users who were concerned Shuster’s plan would give commercials airlines outsized control over the national airspace.
The administration vowed that rural communities and general aviation users would have their voices represented in the new model, but Trump’s principles did not indicate whether they would be exempt from the new entity’s user fees.
The principles also emphasize that the new entity “should honor existing labor agreements,” with current FAA employees allowed to keep their federal retirement and healthcare benefits — an issue that is crucial to winning the support of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
White House officials told reporters that Trump’s leadership on the issue “unifies the nature of the politics” in Congress and could help erode opposition to the plan on Capitol Hill.
But the idea is still likely to face fierce opposition from Democrats, GOP tax-writers and appropriators, who worry about handing over the power to collect fees to a nongovernmental agency.
They are also concerned about giving away the country’s navigation system to a corporation for free and removing operations from congressional oversight, leaving lawmakers little way to hold the new entity accountable.
“Our nation’s airspace is the safest in the world, in no small part because of the exemplary work of our Air Traffic Controllers and aviation safety professionals at the FAA,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement.
“Trump’s ideas for privatizing Air Traffic Control — which recycle a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected — would hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines. Selling off our Air Traffic Control system threatens passenger safety, undermines the FAA’s ongoing modernization, jeopardizes access to rural airports and adds to the deficit.”