White House’s sloppy talk imperils ATC reform

by Aaron Karp
Sep 14, 2017

The US airline industry, which (with the exception of Delta Air Lines) favors removing US air traffic control management and operations from FAA, has embraced the Trump White House’s backing on the issue. But White House support for Rep. Bill Shuster’s ATC reform plan presents a catch-22 for airlines, US air traffic controllers and others pushing for the US to adopt a NAV Canada-like structure to manage ATC.

That’s because the Trump administration’s rhetoric on the issue, starting with President Donald Trump himself, is far too careless and serves to confirm the worst accusations about spinning off ATC from FAA. The way the White House talks about ATC reform makes garnering the necessary votes in Congress extremely difficult.

You probably can’t get ATC reform without White House support, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that you probably can’t get ATC reform with this White House’s support.

For years, the debate over removing ATC from FAA has centered on one loaded word: “privatization.” Advocates were careful to not only avoid this word but to refute those who used it. The entity managing ATC would be not-for-profit and controlled by a board (which, under the latest version of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Shuster’s bill, is fairly wide-ranging and inclusive) and all revenue would be plowed back into the ATC system, enabling modernization—the primary reason for supporting ATC reform.

The ATC entity would be independent, like the US Postal Service (certainly no one’s idea of a private corporation), and be removed from the federal government’s annual appropriations process. That way, it could make large investments in modernization that may not necessarily pay off immediately, but would generate huge benefits down the line. And it could make course corrections along the way as technology evolved and changed without cumbersome legislative alternations. It was not turning ATC over to a private, for-profit corporation. As an added bonus, FAA would become the regulator of the ATC entity and no longer be in the odd position of regulating itself managing ATC.

This is how ATC works in most of the industrialized world.

There are two main constituencies opposed to spinning off ATC from FAA: 1) Good-government liberals who oppose “privatizing” what they see as key government functions and 2) the general aviation community, given voice by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). Both of these groups hurl the “privatization” accusation at ATC reform, and they have been persuasive enough so far to keep ATC within FAA.

There are certain components of both groups that will never be persuaded. (Shuster has indeed made a lot of concessions to general aviation, but NBAA remains adamantly opposed to “big airlines” attempting to “seize control” of US ATC.) But there are likely enough persuadables in each group—if they can be convinced that a vote for spinning off ATC is not a vote for outright “privatization.”

So any White House that waded into the issue (Trump’s is the first to give full-throated support) would have to speak carefully. Above all else, it would have to stay away from characterizing the move as the “privatization” of the ATC system, which sounds like it is being turned over to a for-profit corporation like Microsoft or IBM.

Well, here’s Trump at the White House in June talking about ATC reform: “We’re bidding, ideally, to one great company—there will be many bids, but one great company that can piece it all together.”

Trump appeared to veer off script with this line, and I’m not entirely sure what he was talking about. I think he was referring to the NextGen ATC modernization contracts FAA has inked with various companies over the years. I think he was meaning to say that the new non-profit entity would terminate those contracts and find one company to handle all of the modernization. I think. But I’m not sure, and this one sentence is manna for opponents of ATC “privatization.”

Yesterday at the Airlines for America (A4A) Commercial Aviation Industry Summit in Washington DC, the president’s infrastructure advisor DJ Gribbin, the White House’s point man on the issue, spoke in support of what he casually called ATC “privatization.” Air traffic controllers, he said, were asking Congress to “privatize” ATC—noting it was remarkable unionized public employees would do so.

But really it’s not that remarkable because most of them have been convinced—or at least had been—that what was being proposed was not a pure “privatization” of ATC.

Trump and his aides have simply been too sloppy in their talk on this issue. Trump has repeatedly derided NextGen as “totally failed” and a “total waste of money.” At the White House in June, he said FAA “didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

In truth, NextGen has been too slow—often because funding for it got caught up in appropriations and FAA reauthorization fights in Congress—but it is not a complete failure by any means. Especially under current FAA administrator Michael Huerta, there has been real progress. Again, not fast enough and not in line with the modernization pace of, say, NAV Canada, but positive change nonetheless. The new ATC entity, if established, is expected to build on NextGen and speed it up, but not scrap it altogether. “We don’t have to scrap everything,” Southwest Airlines chairman and CEO Gary Kelly told Trump during a White House meeting earlier this year.

ATC reform that includes spinning off air traffic management from FAA will probably happen eventually in the US. But only when a White House well versed on the issue and careful in its rhetoric is able to assure nervous lawmakers that general aviation isn’t being sold out and ATC isn’t being turned over to a for-profit corporation. At least right now, that is not this White House.

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