In a President Trump, ATC Privatization Backers May Have Found Their Man

The president-elect has derided the nation’s “third-world airports,” leading some on Capitol Hill to believe spinning off ATC from the FAA is now within reach.

Donald Trump
ATC privatization proponents might finally get their way under President Donald Trump.C-Span

Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Transportation, was noncommittal when asked about her position on ATC privatization during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, but there are signs that the incoming administration is warming to the idea.

“I’d like to get confirmed first,” Chao quipped in response to a question about where she stands on the thorny issue by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top-ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

But the president-to-be appears generally supportive of the idea of spinning off air traffic control into a private corporation, a plan being pushed by most major airlines and led on Capitol Hill by Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster.

Shuster says he has met with both Trump and Chao and has received “positive feedback” about the proposal, which would put the nation’s air traffic control system under the purview of a private board of directors dominated by the airlines. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also supports the plan, making it likely that the issue will again heat up as FAA reauthorization legislation is debated later this year.

Elaine Chao Donald Trump
Elaine Chao, Donald Trump's pick to head the Department of Transportation, was noncommittal on ATC privatization during Wednesday's confirmation hearing.C-Span

General aviation groups are strongly opposed to the idea of splitting ATC from the FAA, arguing that private ATC corporations in other countries won’t necessarily work in the United States.

“There are better, more targeted ways to ensure the United States continues to enjoy the largest, safest, most diverse and most efficient air transportation system five, 10 and 20 years from now,” NBAA President Ed Bolen said last year of the proposal. “We do not need to take the risky step of turning our nation’s air traffic system over to a small group of self-interested industry stakeholders.”

Airlines for America, the main airline industry group, has dismissed the criticism as “corporate jet lobbyists” pushing “myths and distortions” about ATC privatization.

Although Trump has not specifically spoken out about air traffic control, he has long talked about the need to modernize the country’s “third-world airports,” raising the possibility that he may be open to privatization as a way to better modernize ATC.

Opponents of ATC privatization are urging the incoming Trump administration to reject the plan, issuing a petition on Wednesday equating the move to spin off ATC and put it under the control of the airlines as akin to "a fox guarding the henhouse."

Schuster, meanwhile, says he plans to add ATC privatization to the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill after he’s had a chance to rally support within the new administration.