Donald Trump’s belief in the power of business guides his governing decisions as president. In the latest example of that, he wants to hand over one of the largest and safest air traffic control systems in the world to the private sector.
Trump announced plans Monday to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates all civil aviation, by turning air traffic control into a nonprofit that he claims would help modernize the system and cut costs.
“If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster, and safer travel,” Trump said in his announcement to a small group of airline executives and supporters at the White House.
The current FAA-run air traffic control system, which employs about 30,000 people, has faced criticism over the pace of its transition from a land-based radar system to a satellite-based, digital system, overseen by a program called NextGen. The FAA has struggled to transfer to the new system, in part, due Congress’s spotty funding of the NextGen program. The agency has also suffered as a result of government shutdowns and furloughs. In April of 2013, for example, furloughs caused 7,100 flights to be delayed, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
The radar system still in use has its roots in World War II technology, and parts of the communications system still use paper. European systems, by contract, use digital communications systems, and private companies are developing new satellite systems in the hopes that the FAA will start using them.
Still, Trump’s call for privatization comes during an unprecedented era of safe aviation in the U.S. There hasn’t been a fatal accident in the last eight years, according to the Associated Press. And even if air traffic control is privatized, the FAA would continue to provide safety oversight of the system, which would be operated by a private company.
“Canada, as an example, modernized their air traffic control through a non-government organization about twenty years ago, and they have cut costs significantly,” Trump said. He failed to mention, however, that Canada employs nine times fewer air traffic controllers than the U.S. FAA.
The privatization idea isn’t new: The airline industry has been pushing for it since the 1980s, and the Clinton administration proposed a similar privatization scheme to Trump’s in 1994. Then, last year, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania, introduced a bill that would have privatized air traffic control. While the bill never made it to the House floor — several key GOP legislators were opposed to the idea of transferring public infrastructure to a private company — a Republican president could help alleviate some skepticism to the idea within the party.
“[Shuster] will have the same problem he did last time,” Oregon Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio told the Washington Post. “If Trump wants to actually put forward a proposal along these lines, he’s going to have to put a lot of personal juice behind it. And then you get to the Senate, and they have pretty much said, ‘We are not interested in this.’ ”
Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser who helped design the infrastructure plan, told the New York Times that taxpayers would incur no cost for the planned updates to the air traffic control system, although specifics haven’t been announced. While Trump hasn’t revealed his full plan yet, if it resembles Shuster’s plan (Trump’s administration says it does), fees paid by passenger and cargo airlines will cover the costs— and there’s no guarantee that airlines won’t pass those costs onto customers.
The union representing the air traffic control workers said in a statement that they will review the details of the proposal before deciding to support the plan or not.