Trump to embrace privatization of air traffic control system

Alejandro Massey
June 6, 2017

About 35,000 workers, including 14,000 controllers and 6,000 technicians, would be affected.

New Zealand, the first country to take the privatization route in the late 1980's, saw its air traffic control system go from losing $5.5 million a year to turning a $2.3 million profit in just a year after privatization.

For all the chatter in the media about Trump's uncharitable response to the terrorist attack, what spoke loudest was the blowback against Trump from British politicians of both parties - and the acting American ambassador. And it would mean that air traffic control wouldn't be funded by taxpayers at all.

The Federal Aviation Administration spends almost $10 billion a year on air traffic control funded largely through passenger user fees, and has about 28,000 air traffic control personnel.

Many countries have created government-owned corporations, independent government agencies or quasi-governmental entities. The new entity should honor existing labor agreements but controllers would no longer be federal employees. NavCanada can raise private capital, make long-term financial commitments, and it recently lowered the fees it charges airlines.

President Donald Trump's plan to privatize the nation's air traffic control system was met with starkly contrasting views Monday by two high-profile Houston lawmakers. The Clinton administration proposed spinning off air traffic operations into a government corporation but ran into congressional opposition.

The White House event reinforced legislation the House Transportation Committee is developing to assign the FAA's responsibility for ATC to a separate entity, a plan spearheaded by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), the committee's chairman. But he couldn't win enough support to bring legislation to the House floor past year, and he faced even greater opposition in the Senate.

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The FAA has defended its NextGen implementation. His campaign for public and private funding for the projects is expected to run from the Rose Garden, where he'll speak about upgrading air traffic control, to OH and Kentucky on inland waterways and through meetings with mayors, governors and Transportation Department officials.

But FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said the agency has made progress during the past decade in updating its computers and other equipment in order to move from a radar-based to a satellite-based control system. The switch is expected to save time and fuel and lower greenhouse gas emissions. He said that number would grow to $13 billion by 2020 and to $160 billion by 2030.

Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, former chairwoman of a House transportation security subcommittee, expressed concern.

This in contrast with the FAA's slow and unwieldly procurement process to modernize its systems which, according to one analyst, "virtually ensures that any planned "new" technology will be obsolete by the time it is operational". He has said that the government's ongoing modernization efforts are already obsolete. The FAA would still provide safety oversight. The administration is not sure if the FAA or the proposed private company would be responsible for training future air traffic controllers.

They have also pointed to the unprecedented safety under the current system and noted repeated computer system failures in recent years by USA airlines, questioning whether they are ready to handle complex technology modernizations.

Their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, endorsed Shuster's bill after winning assurances that controller wages, benefits and collective bargaining rights would be protected.

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