Trump rolls out plan to privatize U.S. air traffic control system

Andrew Bahl

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced Monday he would push to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system as part of a broader plan to pump more funding into American infrastructure.

In an East Room ceremony, Trump said he would ask Congress to transfer control of air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private, nonprofit entity. The corporation’s board would be made up of airline, government and union personnel. He argued that this would increase the efficiency of an antiquated system.

“Today we’re proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally,” Trump said. “We’re proposing reduced wait times, increased route efficiency and far fewer delays. Our plan will get you where you need to go more quickly, more effectively and … on time.”

The plan is based on a bill authored last year by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. The Pennsylvania lawmaker, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and airline executives were among those in attendance at the ceremony.

If Congress greenlights Trump’s proposal, the U.S. would join other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, in moving to an air traffic control system run by industry stakeholders.

But previous attempts at privatization have failed. Shuster’s proposal did not receive a vote in either house of Congress, and the plan comes at a time when lawmakers are bracing for a battle to reauthorize the FAA’s funding, which expires in September.

Opponents of the bill, including many Congressional Democrats, argue that Trump’s plan would hand government assets over to private interests that would not ensure the safety and well-being of fliers.

Meanwhile, Trump criticized efforts by the Obama administration to improve the air traffic control system, calling them “failed.”

“The previous administration spent over $7 billion to upgrade the system and totally failed,” Trump said Monday. “Honestly they didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

President Trump after signing the air traffic control initiative, June 5, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The FAA is in the midst of a $38.5 billion modernization project, and agency head Michael Huerta told lawmakers last month that it has made “tremendous progress” on the upgrades.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union representing air traffic controllers employed by the FAA, said Monday that it was reviewing the president’s plan. NATCA has previously expressed support for Shuster’s plan.

“NATCA shares the Administration’s commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System with a stable, predictable funding stream,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement.

Air traffic control unions and the government have a fraught history. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers after they refused to return to work following a strike.

Aviation is just one piece of Trump’s much-touted infrastructure plans, which he will lay out in a series of events over the course of this week. The president will be in Cincinnati on Wednesday to unveil his broader infrastructure plan, a centerpiece of his campaign agenda in which he promised to revamp the nation’s roads, airports and waterways.

The administration is also organizing an “infrastructure summit” on Thursday, the same day that former FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify before a Senate committee on whether Trump asked him to impede an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

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