The Wait for ATC Privatization is Over as White House Budget Emerges

This time around, general aviation’s fight to block the measure is expected to be more intense than ever before.

Trump in a Boeing 787
President Trump's proposed 2018 budget will privatize air traffic control operations, something airline executives have been lobbying for.White House

The Trump administration’s admission today that efforts to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system have earned a line in the president’s upcoming budget is expected to quickly ignite opposing efforts from the general aviation community.

Pushback on ATC privatization in the past has focused on two key issues: who will control the new corporate entity and how it will be funded? For years, the privatization concept has focused around a proposed board of directors heavily influenced by the airlines, with user fees to fund the system being hoisted on the airlines, and perhaps general aviation as well. The airlines, of course, will be able to pass along any increase in costs to passengers, an option that doesn’t exist for noncommercial general aviation.

The new White House budget proposal says separating ATC from the FAA to create an "independent, non-governmental organization" would make the system "more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety." Specific details about how these new efficiencies would actually come to play have never been disclosed. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta does not support privatization, last month making the rounds explaining the “tremendous progress” NextGen has provided the industry in the past decade.

The major airlines, except for Delta, have for years claimed that the NextGen plan to update the nation’s ATC system is taking far too long and has cost billions more than it should. Adding to what the airlines say ails the current ATC system is the chaos of a rocky federal budgeting system that never seems to be able to guarantee a steady flow of cash to support system renewal. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association representing the agency’s 14,000 controllers backs the privatization plan, complaining the FAA is unable to resolve either controller staffing or system modernization issues.

This new privatization move is expected to mirror an earlier effort last year, nudged along by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, an important airline industry ally. Many other members of Congress have opposed previous privatization efforts and are expected to join the fight this time around.

Political money tracking site Opensecrets.org claims Rep. Shuster received $148,499 in airline industry campaign contributions in the 2016 election. Reports have also circulated for years about a conflicting personal relationship of Shuster’s with a top staffer at the airline’s powerful lobbying group, Airlines for America.