Senators of both parties questioned Wednesday whether President Trump’s proposal to privatize the air-traffic control system would hurt rural states, but Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said small communities would benefit from the change.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said during a transportation committee hearing on the proposal that it raised many concerns in small communities. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said only the largest cities would benefit. And Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called the proposal “a tough sell” in states where small airports are “very concerned.
“The sale needs to be made and it needs to be made convincingly,” Wicker said. “Folks back home need a comfort level about what this might result in.”
Chao said rural communities would benefit from moving air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a non-profit corporation because the first cuts in a budget fight concern towers where controllers are hired under contract in communities with few flights.
“The contract towers are very important to rural America,” Chao said. “I’m very, very concerned about the impact on rural America.”
Airlines have strongly urged the change as a way to modernize the system faster and more efficiently than FAA, with steady industry funding rather than annual spending fights in Congress. Chao said the corporation’s biggest advantage would be to avoid cumbersome federal procurement rules, which take so long to buy equipment that it is never state of the art.
“The rural areas are most hurt by the status quo,” Chao said. “Access to rural America would actually be enhanced if the air traffic control system were taken out of the bureaucratic government budgeting and procurement processes.”
Trump proposed that the corporation be governed by a 13-member board. To set up the board, the transportation secretary would appoint two members representing airlines, two for unions, one for airports, one for general-aviation and two for government. Those eight would choose a chief executive officer, and together they would choose the final four members. But the seats wouldn’t be assigned after that initial selection.
Critics of the proposal have argued that airlines would control the board. Moran said he would trust Congress to protect the interest of rural communities more than 13 members of a corporate board.
“I would put my eggs in the basket of asking Congress to be supportive of rural programs much more readily than I would put my eggs in the basket of a private board,” Moran said.
But Chao denied that airlines would control the board.
“Their responsibility is not to look after their parochial interests,” Chao said of board members.
Groups representing general-aviation pilots and business jets have criticized the proposal because of concerns that airlines would get preference at busy airports and concerns they would be charged more by the corporation than by the government.
Trump’s principles outlined Monday, which aren’t formal legislative language, call for open access for rural communities and general-aviation users. But the principles also said “all users should pay their fair share.”
Thune asked Chao directly whether the corporation would charge fees for each flight, which private pilots worry would cost more than the current fuel taxes.
“I think it’s open at this point,” Chao said.
She drew a distinction between business jets and mom-and-pop single pilots. But the administration will work with general aviation to resolve their concerns, she said.
“We are very concerned about obviously their concerns with the administration’s proposal,” Chao said. “Maintenance of access is a huge issue.
The proposal came on the heels of Trump’s budget, which eliminated the $175 million program called Essential Air Service for a “wholesale redesign.” The 40-year-old program subsidizes airline service to small communities, which the administration criticized for high costs per passenger.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called the cut “alarming.”
“If we are moving to a privatized system of air traffic control basically run by airlines who are profit-making entities – the reason they don’t serve these rural areas is because they don’t make money,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.
Chao said the budget was developed before many key members of the administration had arrived, she said.
“I am hopeful I will have a partial solution shortly,” Chao said.