Trump calls for air traffic control spin-off in budget

Trump calls for air traffic control spin-off in budget
© Greg Nash

President Trump is throwing his weight behind a proposal to spin off air traffic control from the federal government, delivering a major boost for proponents pushing to advance the contentious plan in Congress.

In his budget released Thursday, Trump’s 2018 proposal calls for a “multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration to an independent, non-governmental organization, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

The document says the model, which is a top priority for most of the nation's major airlines, “would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall.”

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There have been signs in recent weeks that the administration has been warming up to the idea of separating air traffic control, but this is the first time Trump has publicly endorsed the idea. Trump lamented that the current system is “totally out of whack” during an aviation meeting at the White House, while Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is considering visiting Canada to examine the country’s outside air traffic control agency.

Trump’s support could help erode some of the Republican opposition on Capitol Hill to the proposal.

“I commend President Trump for his leadership in calling for restructuring the role of the FAA. This budget takes the next step in what our committee produced last year — separating the air traffic control function from the federal government and establishing an independent, not-for-profit organization to provide this service,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
 
“The inclusion of this good government infrastructure proposal shows that the president is truly focused on changing the way Washington works.”

Shuster, an early Trump backer, has been one of the chief proponents of the plan and has visited the White House several times over the last few weeks.

He authored a long-term proposal to reauthorize the FAA last year that included language to peel off air traffic control and give it to a nonprofit or non-governmental organization, though the FAA would still maintain safety oversight.

Proponents say it’s necessary to speed up long-stalled modernization efforts and to avoid the financial and political uncertainty of being subject to the annual appropriations process. The airline industry has lobbied Congress heavily for the proposal.

But the measure stalled on the House floor amid opposition from GOP tax writers and appropriators. They are concerned about handing over the power to collect fees to a non-governmental organization.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its transportation subcommittee still have those same concerns, saying in a recent letter “it does not appear to make sense to break apart the FAA.”

“The public would not be well-served by exempting any part of the FAA from congressional oversight,” they wrote. “The annual appropriations process provides the oversight of agency resources necessary to ensure accountability for program performance and a sustained focus on aviation safety.” 

Other critics point out that the president's budget does not become law.

“The President proposes and the Congress disposes," said Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives. "We are confident the Congress will dispose of proposals that would harm efforts by airports to enhance security, reduce wait times and protect air service options for smaller communities."

Still, supporters of the spin-off plan are ecstatic to have Trump’s backing and believe it will add new momentum to help move legislation this year. Lawmakers are preparing legislation to reauthorize the FAA, whose legal authority expires in September.

“This is a bold step that will lead to the governance and funding reforms needed to move our air traffic control infrastructure into the 21st century,” said Airlines for America president and CEO Nicholas E. Calio. “Our system is safe, but it is outdated and not as efficient as it should — or could — be. We need to stop accepting pockets of progress and put in place a modernized system that better serves the traveling and shipping public.”