A plan President Donald Trump announced June 5 to privatize air traffic control services is unlikely to win the support of a key House committee, according to U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark.
Citing billions of dollars spent and “an ancient, broken, antiquated horrible system that doesn’t work,” Trump announced a new framework and bidding process that would turn air traffic control operations in the United States over to a “self-financing, nonprofit organization.”
“Our air traffic control system was designed when roughly 100,000 people flew at our airports each year,” Trump said. “We are now approaching nearly 1 billion passengers annually. The current system cannot keep up — hasn’t been able to keep up for many years. It causes flight delays and crippling inefficiencies, costing our economy as much as $25 billion a year in economic output. We live in a modern age, yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past.”
Clark, a Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, was asked about the proposal during a New England Council breakfast June 5. The committee, which has responsibility for the federal budget, opposed air traffic control privatization last year and Clark said she has seen no indication that position will change.
“We had a hearing on it a few weeks ago, and reading the tea leaves, a few weeks ago it did not sound like it had great Republican support,” Clark said.
She said the Canadian air traffic control system, often pointed to as an example of successful privatization, “is very different, certainly, in the level of schedules and plane travel than the United States system.”
Clark said there needs to be greater investment in the country’s air traffic control, including modernization that would move it to a satellite-based system.
“I think there is a real concern that we are falling behind,” she said. “It’s a critical piece of infrastructure that we’re not funding, and I think one labor union has come out and said, ‘Yup, we want to privatize,’ and I think that’s really a frustration out of, well, is the federal government ever going to do this work?”
Under Trump’s plan, the Federal Aviation Administration would focus on safety, while a separate nonprofit “would be charged with ensuring route efficiency, timely service and a long-awaited reduction in delays.”
“If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster, and safer travel — a future where 20 percent of a ticket price doesn’t go to the government, and where you don’t have to sit on a tarmac or circle for hours and hours over an airport — which is very dangerous also — before you land,” Trump said.
In February, four members of the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote to colleagues on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to express concerns with any legislation that would separate the FAA’s safety programs from its air traffic control functions. The letter was signed by committee Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Collins chairs the appropriations panel’s subcommittee on transportation, and Reed is its ranking Democrat.
The letter said the FAA is working to upgrade the air traffic control system as well as to improve its safety oversight.
“If the air traffic control were separated during this critical period of technological advancement, the progress already being made to synchronize investment from government and industry related to safety, equipage, training, operational changes and overall integration would be lost,” the letter stated. “It does not appear to make sense to break apart the FAA, an essential part of our success in aviation.”
U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark represents the Fifth District in Massachusetts, which includes Lincoln.