WASHINGTON — Despite a campaign full of pledges to aid rural areas, President Donald Trump’s first big move on infrastructure — privatizing key functions of the Federal Aviation Administration — is quickly drawing fire from small airports, rural communities and their federal lawmakers.
That opposition could sink the proposal in Congress, or at least rile up some of Trump’s base.
Trump on Monday reaffirmed his support for a plan to transfer air traffic control responsibilities from the FAA to a self-financing, nonprofit corporation. Freed from government red tape, the new aviation system will provide passengers with “cheaper, faster and safer travel,” the president pledged at a White House ceremony.
Major airlines, the air traffic controllers union and former U.S. transportation secretaries all support the privatization proposal, partly because of the agency’s slow track record in modernizing its technology. Opponents fear the plan could hand over government assets and more power to the airline industry, which will have representatives on the new nonprofit board.
Small airports and the general aviation industry fear they could become an aviation afterthought.
Until this week, key U.S. senators — including Republicans Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Thune of South Dakota and Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida and Peter DeFazio of Oregon — opposed proposals to privatize parts of the FAA. Nelson on Monday called it “a risk and liability we can’t afford to take,” and Moran, who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, offered even stronger words.
“Proposals to privatize air traffic control threaten the reliable transportation options provided by small airports and the general aviation community for millions of Americans,” said Moran in an emailed statement to McClatchy.
“All but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt by this proposal. 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.”
Many major airlines have campaigned for years to privatize FAA, spending $16 million in 2016 alone on lobbying Congress and federal agencies. One of their key allies has been U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who attended Monday’s event at the White House and chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Shuster last year tried to pass an FAA privatization bill, but it was stymied by opposition and other controversies, including the disclosure that Shuster was dating a top lobbyist for the airlines.
Supporters stood little chance of passing a privatization bill when Barack Obama was president. Shuster now stands a better chance, especially if the White House leans on Republicans who once were critical, such as Thune, but have now grown quieter.
“Dozens of countries have already made similar changes with terrific results,” Trump said Monday. “And we’re going to top them, actually, by a long shot.”
Nearly all interests agree the nation’s air traffic control system is safe but antiquated, relying on radar while other nations long ago started using GPS. The debate focuses on why it has taken the FAA so long to adopt Next Generation (NextGen) technology, aimed at reducing aircraft delays, wasted fuel and other costs.
Trump said that “the previous administration spent over $7 billion to upgrade the system and totally failed” — a claim that FAA officials reject. In a recent speech, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asserted that NextGen has already provided $2.7 billion in benefits, and is on track to provide more than $157 billion more by 2030. Huerta acknowledged, however, that government procurement requirements have slowed the NextGen rollout.
Along with privatizing air traffic control, the president’s proposal would give this new nonprofit entity control of a $36 billion modernization program for airports. The governing board would assume all of the FAA’s assets pertaining to air traffic control, a transfer of tens of billions of dollars. It also would be authorized to establish fees on passengers to pay for airport and system upgrades.
Trump’s claim on Monday that his FAA plan will “maintain support for rural communities and small airports” was immediately disputed by the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a group that represents small airports and other groups.
“Not only is the president’s proposal a huge power grab for the commercial airlines, but the notion that the airlines can run anything better, let along air traffic control, is laughable,” said Selena Shilad, the group’s executive director.
U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican from Kansas, also raised concerns Monday, stating that the privatization plan could hurt Wichita and aviation industries in his 4th Congressional District. “Any updates to America’s air traffic control system must ensure the safety of American air passengers and protect the needs of general aviation,” he said in a statement.
Trump’s support for FAA privatization is part of a multiday White House focus on infrastructure, unveiled the week that fired FBI Director James Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump is slated to meet with members of Congress Tuesday and then provide broader details of his infrastructure plan at during a Wednesday speech on the Ohio River.
A top White House official acknowledged Monday that rural areas and small airports had concerns about privatization, but that those were being addressed. DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure, said the White House has modified Shuster’s proposal to include more representation for smaller airports on the 13-member board that would oversee the nation’s air traffic control.
David Woodard, a GOP consultant and Clemson University pollster, said that some of Trump’s base may be concerned by his FAA proposal but will likely be pleased he is still “shaking up the tree.” Trump supporters were originally drawn to him, said Woodard, because “they like the fact that he raised hell, and got in a fight.”