US president Donald Trump formally announced on 5 June a proposal to privatise US air traffic control (ATC) – a plan the president says will improve aviation efficiency and enable broad upgrades for outdated air traffic management systems.
“For too many years our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac and a slowing of commerce and travel,” Trump says during a speech from the White House. “Today we are proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally.”
Trump’s proposal to Congress calls for shifting ATC out of the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration and into a newly-created “self-financing nonprofit organisation”.
Safety regulation would remain the FAA’s core function, Trump says.
The private ATC organisation would be funded by users of the aviation system, and not reliant on taxpayer money, Trump says.
“The FAA has been trying to upgrade air traffic control for… many years,” Trump says. “We are still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiqued, horrible system that doesn’t work.”
Though Trump outlined only broad strokes of his proposal, his speech threw presidential support behind a plan that in recent years gained traction amid a broad push by the airline industry and support from several high-profile lawmakers.
Chief among those has been Republican congressman Bill Shuster, who is also chair of the House Transportation committee.
Shuster in 2016 proposed legislation that would have created a private ATC organisation funded by users and governed by a board consisting of users.
Though his bill died in Congress, earlier this year Shuster told FlightGlobal that he viewed Trump as an ally in the effort.
During the 5 June event, Trump thanked Shuster for his leadership. Shuster later took the stage, saying, “President Trump has stepped up”.
Shuster now seems poised to take the lead to introduce again the required legislation, which could come as part of the FAA’s next funding bill – expected before the agency’s current funding expires in September.
The FAA for years has been trying to implement a broad set of ATC modernisations known as NextGen, but progress has been slow.
US controllers largely still use secondary radar to track aircraft on domestic and coastal routes and even paper slips to guide aircraft beyond radar coverage, while controllers in other countries use modern GPS-based systems, critics have noted.
They have said the FAA has been unable to achieve its goals partly due to financial uncertainty. Although user fees deposited in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund pay for the majority of ATC operations, the FAA also relies on contributions from the taxpayer-supported General Fund, which Congress appropriates with annual fluctuations.
Trade group Airlines for America and most US airlines have supported ATC privatisation, and Trump says his plan enjoys support from airlines, passenger advocates and air traffic controllers.
Indeed, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association supported Shuster’s 2016 bill. The group now says it “looks forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control reform legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our union’s principles”.
But privatisation has not been without opposition.
Delta Air Lines, for instance, has called instead for the industry to improve ATC by working with, rather than against, the FAA.
Opposition has come also from top Democratic lawmakers, including ranking member of the US Senate Commerce Committee Bill Nelson and ranking member of the House Transportation Committee Peter DeFazio.
“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,” Nelson says in a 5 June statement.
Other groups to raise concern include representatives of business aviation, including the National Business Travel Association (NBAA).
“We are deeply concerned with the president’s call for ATC privatisation – a concept that has long been a goal of the big airlines,” says NBAA in a 5 June statement.
“We are concerned that those left behind under ATC privatisation would be the citizens, companies and communities that rely on general aviation for all manner of services,” says NBAA chief executive Ed Bolen in the statement.