Trump calls again for privatizing air traffic control

Saying the current air traffic control system is broken, President Trump called for a plan to put the system into the hands of a private, nonprofit organization that can modernize and improve air travel.

“We live in a modern age, yet our air traffic control system is stuck painfully in the past,” he said at a news conference Monday attended by airline executives and administration officials.

Under the concept outlined by supporters, the Federal Aviation Administration would turn control of the system over to a panel that would include representatives from airlines, pilot and flight attendants unions and local leaders. Fees from airlines and passengers would fund staffing, maintenance and upgrades.

“If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster and safer travel — a future where 20% 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.

Opponents were quick to shoot down the idea, which would require congressional approval, saying it would put too much control in the hands of the airlines.

“Handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

A group that represents small airports and leaders in rural communities also spoke out against the proposal, saying it fears that smaller airports would be neglected or ignored under a privatized system and that fees would rise.

“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 alone air traffic control, is laughable,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of Alliance for Aviation Across America.

Privatizing the air traffic control system is an idea that has been floated before. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, sponsored a bill last year to remove air traffic operations from the FAA and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.

Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have already turned over day-to-day management of their systems to private businesses or independent agencies with at least partial government ownership.

Trump first proposed the privatization idea in his budget outline in March.

Supporters of the plan have said that removing the air traffic control system out from under direct control of the FAA would free it from routine budget cuts and funding feuds. The move also would speed up a modernization program that has been in the works since 2003, proponents say.

The FAA would still dictate safety regulations under the plan.

“The fact is this is a proven, good-government reform that has been successfully done around the world in over 60 other countries, and will improve our aviation system for all of its users and all of our communities — large and small,” Shuster said Monday.

Overhauling the U.S. air traffic control system would be a massive undertaking because U.S. airspace is the world’s largest and busiest — several times bigger than that of any other country with privatized air traffic control operations.

More than 2 million travelers fly every day through U.S. airspace, and the system that directs the nearly 24,000 daily commercial flights is run from 479 control towers. The system employs more than 30,000 people, including 14,000 air traffic controllers and 6,000 technicians.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that settling questions about liability, creating a fee structure and deciding how to transfer government assets to a new agency could take five to seven years to resolve.

Under Trump’s plan, the federal government would turn over its airport facilities and other assets to the proposed nonprofit group at no charge. He also calls for the transfer to take place within a three-year period.

Opponents say that a series of recent embarrassing incidents in the airline industry — a passenger forcibly dragged from his seat and mass flight cancellations in England — show that private companies do not have a great track record for running big operations.

“The industry responsible for massive IT meltdowns, sky-high airline fees and shrinking seats should not be in control of managing the most complex airspace in the world,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Nelson previously has said that one of the reasons for his opposition to the privatization idea is that it would undermine the close relationship that the FAA has with the military on national defense issues.

Even supporters of Trump’s proposal say turning over the air traffic control system to a nonprofit private body will not guarantee that the current modernization efforts would be accelerated.

“What we know is that we are now just toiling in the muddy fields with our wheels spinning,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Assn., a group that represents 15,000 pilots of American Airlines and supports Trump’s proposal.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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