Trump Backs Semi-Private Air-Traffic to Fix ‘Broken’ System

(Bloomberg) —
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President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attend an Air Traffic Control Reform Initiative event in the East Room at the White House, on Monday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump on Monday unveiled his proposal to hand over control of the U.S. air-traffic control system to a non-profit corporation, calling the current system an antiquated mess that doesn’t work and wastes money.

The proposal, part of a week-long push for his infrastructure plan, is designed to lower costs and improve efficiency of the system that oversees flights. It would transfer about 15,000 controllers and thousands of other managers and technical workers to a new government-sanctioned corporation, according to a plan Trump sent to Congress.

Trump used blunt language to attack his own Federal Aviation Administration, saying it wasted billions of dollars in technology and accusing it — without offering proof — of using equipment that dated back decades.

“They didn’t know what they were doing,” he said of previous efforts to modernize the system. “A total waste of money.”

The plan drew immediate support from most airlines but faces some stiff opposition in Congress, where most Democrats and some powerful Republicans have resisted transferring this critical service outside of the government.

American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, said it looked forward to working with the Trump administration “to make air travel cleaner, safer and more efficient.”

“The antiquated system we rely on today is inefficient and causes thousands of avoidable flight delays,” Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for American, said in an emailed statement. “If we aren’t able to modernize and innovate using the latest technology, the impacts to the traveling public will continue to grow.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, cited concerns about estimates that the plan would increase the deficit and diminish safety.

“There is no consensus on this short-sighted privatization proposal,” DeFazio, of Oregon, said. “Committee Democrats are working on targeted reforms to help speed up the FAA’s modernization efforts without privatizing the system. We hope these reforms will be bipartisan.”

In an attempt to gain support for the plan, which fell short in Congress last year, the White House said the 13-member board of directors for the new corporation should be made up of appointees from industry stakeholder groups. Critics had charged the proposal last year gave too much power on the board to airlines.

The plan is part of the White House’s goal to transform U.S. infrastructure. Later this week Trump is expected to travel to Ohio to garner support for his strategy — a key campaign promise — to channel $1 trillion into the nation’s roads, bridges, inland waterways and other public facilities.

Even though the FAA is spending more than $1 billion a year on air-traffic modernization efforts, Trump has embraced the spinoff because it jibes with his vision of shrinking government and making it more efficient, said DJ Gribbin, a special assistant to the president who gave a briefing on the plan Monday morning.

“All of those elements line up very nicely with the president’s view” of how to run government, Gribbin said.

Trump’s air-traffic control proposal is based largely on legislation introduced in 2016 by Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Trump Monday signed a decision memo, and sent a letter to Congress on the principles in his air-traffic control plan at the White House. It would create a new user fee on aircraft using the system to replace current taxes on aviation fuel and airline tickets.

Critics of the air-traffic plan have said it would jeopardize small airports by giving too much power to airlines and large hubs.

While the FAA is already years into a technology upgrade known as NextGen, the efficiency improvements it promises can be better accomplished outside of direct government control, say backers of the White House plan. The FAA would continue to monitor safety and write air-traffic regulations under the plan.

The proposal is opposed by private-plane groups, who say they don’t want to pay a user fee for flying.

“We applaud President Trump’s calls to invest and improve our nation’s infrastructure including our airports,” said Mark Baker, CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in an emailed statement. “However, the U.S. has a very safe air traffic system today and we don’t hear complaints from our nearly 350,000 members about it.”

About 60 countries, including Canada and the U.K., have gone to similar semi-private management of their air-traffic networks.

On Wednesday, Trump plans to visit Cincinnati, located on the Ohio River on the border with Kentucky. The event will highlight the locks, dams and other elements of the inland waterways system crucial for moving agricultural products and other goods. The key principles of Trump’s plan, released May 23, called for a fee on commercial navigation to finance future capital investments.

On Thursday, Trump will host governors and mayors at the White House for a bipartisan listening session.

Trump plans to finish the week at the Department of Transportation offices in Washington to discuss its efforts to streamline the regulatory approval and permitting process for road and rail projects. Approvals that can take 10 years should be done in two years or less, Trump administration officials have said, and the White House has convened a task force of 16 agencies to examine policies, rules and laws that should be targeted to speed up the process.

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