President Donald Trump called for privatization of air-traffic control, telling a crowd in the White House that the time had to come to modernize the nation’s air-travel system.
“We are prepared to enter a great new era in American aviation,” said Trump, speaking to VIPs and the media in the East Room. “It’s time to join the future and make flights quicker, safer, more reliable.”
The nation’s air-traffic control system is indeed antiquated — a detail highlighted by how Trump’s call for privatization and upgrades is not substantially different from GOP proposals dating back 30 years. Republican proposals to privatize air-traffic control go back at least to the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Privatization identified air-traffic control as one of the many operations that could go to private management.
At his Monday event, Trump noted the irony of big-government social democracies, such as Canada, that privatized air-traffic control before the United States.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton dismissed the concept, saying air-traffic control was “inherently governmental,” according to The New York Times. But President George W. Bush reversed the federal government’s position in 2001, and sought to hire hundreds of air-traffic controllers on a contractual basis. The unions opposed Bush’s plan.
But this time, the air-traffic control union is on board. Trump made sure to accentuate the need for reform of the air-travel system by bringing three past secretaries of the Department of Transportation. One of them was former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who served as Transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan.
Trump said his reform would help bring about long-needed modernization — the air-traffic control system still uses ground-based radar units, instead of satellite GPS — as well as an end to travel delays. Trump said the Republican-backed plan would succeed where former President Barack Obama failed.
“The previous administration spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade the system, and totally failed,” said Trump. “Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. A total waste of money — $7 billion-plus-plus.”
Trump’s plan would turn the air-traffic control system into a “modernized nonprofit organization” that operates on fees paid by airlines and others that use U.S. airspace, instead of taxes, according to Fox News.
Trump said the current system was founded when there were 100,000 annual air travelers. Today, there are 1 billion a year. And there are large commercial flights and now unmanned aerial devices, better known as drones.
“The current system cannot keep up — hasn’t been able to keep up for many years,” Trump said. “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 . . . It’s time to join the future. That is why I’m proposing new principles to Congress for air-traffic control reform, making flights quicker, safer and more reliable. Crucially, these reforms are supported by air-traffic controllers themselves. They’re the ones that know the systems that they want.”
Most crucially, the plan would take air-traffic control away from the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s been an airline-industry priority for years, according to Marketwatch.com.
The industry believes the FAA’s plan for the future — NextGen — is taking too long. NextGen is under development along Florida’s Space Coast, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Daytona Beach International Airport. NextGen would use satellite GPS, too.
But what irks Trump is that other nations have already begun using GPS for air-traffic control.
“We’re the last to do air-traffic control, not the first to do air-traffic control,” said Gary Cohn, the White House economic adviser, speaking at a recent CEO town hall. “A country that has Silicon Valley and all of the technology entrepreneurs that we have, we’re playing catchup. That’s embarrassing for us.”
“Canada modernized their air-traffic control through a non-government organization about 20 years ago, and they have cut costs significantly.”
Trump also noted that many other nations have transferred their air-traffic control to nonprofit organizations, including America’s neighbor to the north.
“Dozens of countries have already made similar changes with terrific results,” said Trump. “Canada, as an example, modernized their air-traffic control through a non-government organization about 20 years ago, and they have cut costs significantly, adopted cutting-edge technology, and handled 50 percent more traffic — and actually, far more than that on a relative basis compared to us.”
At the end of his speech, Trump signed his initiative and handed the pens to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But actual legislation will be a tough climb for the GOP. Democrats have already blasted the proposal, saying it will empower airline executives. Some Republicans fret about the plan’s effect on rural airports. And some conservatives fret that the bill will be a union giveaway, with little recourse left for taxpayers. That’s reportedly a worry of Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Trump’s legislative goal is likely to come to debate in the fall, when a new budget for the FAA has to be crafted.