Does the President’s Support for ATC Privatization “Trump” the Political Dynamic?

By Bill Deere, Executive Vice President of Government and External Affairs

A White House event can be one of the greatest home field advantages in the political world, jump starting initiatives and changing the dynamics of policy debates in Washington.  That was no doubt the intent last week when the White House unveiled infrastructure week, a series of speeches kicked off with an East Room event where President Trump announced to a room full of airline CEOs and reporters his support for the airline plan to corporatize the nation’s air traffic control system.  Did the event change the political dynamics?  Early returns indicate it did not.

The event was preceded by the obligatory conference call of Administration officials and reporters.  The call continues the tendency of supporters of ATC corporatization to assert as “fact” things that are at best opinions and at worst misleading or wrong.  For example, in the related Washington Post article the weekend before the White House event, the Chairman of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, asserts that “GPS will help pilots fly more direct routes, cutting down both flight times and fuel usage.”  The reality is that capably equipped aircraft have been given direct routing for over 15 years.  In fact, U.S. carriers have lagged behind much of the world in investing in new, better equipped aircraft.  ADS-B has been fully operational for several years, yet the airlines are waiting until the last minute of the 2020 deadline to equip.  Who is really the laggard, the FAA or the airlines?


That tendency to exaggerate continued at the White House event.  Flanked by current and former Secretaries of Transportation (one of whom is a well-compensated airline lobbyist), the President continued the series of airline assertions that NATA rebutted in its paper, “Myths and Facts Surrounding Air Traffic Control Corporatization.” Stating the proposal will “get you where you need to go more quickly, more reliably, more affordably and, yes – for the first time in a long time – on time,” the format precluded questions, including asking about the fact the number one cause of delays is neither the FAA nor weather, but rather the airlines themselves.  The President also referenced a broad group of supporters including controllers. Really? NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement, “We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control reform legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our Union’s principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Did it change the political dynamic?  From the general aviation perspective, NATA President Marty Hiller reacted swiftly, “The Trump proposal introduces significant uncertainty to the world’s largest, most complex and safest air traffic control system, offering a radical solution to issues easily addressed within the FAA’s current framework. Surprisingly, the proposal also makes little business sense, it does nothing to address the need for additional airport infrastructure investment but adds significantly to annual budget deficits and increases the costs to be borne by the non-flying public.”

On the political front reaction was equally fast.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) panned the proposal noting, “Creating a private not-for-profit for the airlines to control could be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”  The Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stated, “I’m worried about it. There are all kinds of small airports all over the country that I’m not sure the private sector can handle.”  Senator John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (the one that will actually write the Senate version of the FAA bill) stated, “Getting a bill to President Trump’s desk will require bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community on a way forward.” His opposite number, Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) was even more definitive, “The safety of the flying public should not be for sale. 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.”

Where was aviation business that day?  Information about the event came to general aviation second-hand.  Our inquiries about the event were met with silence.  So instead of using the grandeur of a presidential event to help persuade, general aviation was shown its place in Administration thinking – nowhere.

Act Now to Prevent the Privatization of the Air Traffic Control System, Visit NATA’s Action Center.

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