Senators not sold on privatizing air traffic control

President Trump's plan to privatize air traffic control operations is getting a cool reception from senators on both sides of the aisle.

Shutterstock image. Air Traffic Control. Image credit: hxdbzxy / Shutterstock.com
 

To kick off a series of events dubbed "infrastructure week," President Donald Trump backed a plan to spin air traffic control operations out from under the control of the Federal Aviation Administration to a nongovernment, nonprofit entity.

However, that proposal is receiving a cool reception in the Senate, where many members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have long-held plans to reauthorize FAA.

At a June 7 hearing, both Republicans and Democrats pushed back against the plan, raising concerns that the private entity could disrupt the progress made on the NextGen modernization project and may not adequately safeguard smaller stakeholders and rural communities.

"There isn't consensus on this committee" on privatizing air traffic control, said Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "Right now, there are lots of questions on both sides … that need to be addressed."

FAA's authorization is set to expire at the end of September. Thune said the committee "would love to do a multi-year FAA reauthorization bill that would attract broad support in the Senate."

Ranking Member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) added that he hopes the committee can have such a bill "ready to go in the coming weeks."

Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified that the greatest benefits of creating the new, private entity would be faster tech acquisition for air traffic control technology as well as a "much steadier budget scenario."

"We have the best and safest system in the world," she said, adding that in order to maintain that supremacy, "we need to have the much-needed technological advances."

"Because the procurement rules are very bureaucratic, by the time the government gets the equipment, many times, it's no longer state of the art, modern technology just because of the lengthy procurement process," Chao said.

"The NexGen effort has been going on for quite a while. It has expended billions of dollars, and we are still facing many, many delays, congestions, procurement issues that existed decades ago," she added.

However, Nelson expressed concerns that "a fundamental break-up of the FAA" would disrupt progress made to NextGen, and that a private board would inherently favor its larger stakeholders.

"If the airlines can't even manage their own IT systems, how can we trust them to effectively govern a privatized air traffic control entity and continue current NextGen modernization efforts?" he asked.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) expressed skepticism that a private entity would adequately look after smaller stakeholders and raised concerns that a new entity would not be subject to congressional oversight.

"Almost any place -- except for the largest cities in the country -- is rural," he said. "I would put my eggs in the basket of asking Congress to be supportive of rural programs much more readily than … a 13-member, private board."

Moran voiced his support for long-term FAA reauthorization, adding, "with the administration's support of [privatization], the chances of getting a long-term FAA reauthorization, in my view, have now been diminished."

"At some point, the decision needs to be made,” he said. “Is our priority a long-term FAA reauthorization, or is it privatization of air traffic control -- because those things may be mutually exclusive."

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