The US airline industry, which (with the exception of Delta Air Lines) favors removing US air traffic control management and operations from FAA, has eagerly embraced the Trump White House’s backing on the issue. But White House support for US Rep. Bill Shuster’s ATC reform plan may not be the bonus airlines, US air traffic controllers and others pushing for the US to adopt a NAV Canada-like structure to manage ATC were counting on.

The Trump administration’s rhetoric on the issue, starting with President Donald Trump himself, has been far too careless and served to confirm the worst accusations about spinning off ATC from FAA. That has made garnering the necessary votes in Congress extremely difficult.

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 of Representatives 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 is not turning ATC over to a private, for-profit corporation. And FAA would become the regulator of the ATC entity and no longer be in the odd position of regulating itself managing ATC.

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

Opposing reform

There are two main groups opposed to spinning off ATC from FAA: 1) good-government liberals who are against “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.

There are certainly 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 what it characterizes as “big airlines” attempting to “seize control” of US ATC. But there are likely enough people willing to be persuaded in each group to pass ATC reform legislation—if they can be convinced that a vote for spinning off ATC is not a vote for outright “privatization.”

Trump’s White House is the first to give full-throated support, but needs to speak carefully to be successful. Above all else, it must 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.

But here is how Trump talked up ATC reform in June: “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 it is not clear what he was talking about. Perhaps he was referring to the NextGen ATC modernization contracts FAA has inked with various companies over the years. Perhaps 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 projects. But this one unclear sentence is manna for opponents of ATC “privatization.”

DJ Gribbin, the president’s infrastructure advisor and the White House’s point man on the issue, spoke at an Airlines for America (A4A) conference in September, touting Trump’s support of what Gribbin casually referred to as ATC “privatization.” He said air traffic controllers were asking Congress to “privatize” ATC, noting it was remarkable unionized public employees would do so.

But it really is not that remarkable because the controllers had been convinced that what is being proposed is not a pure “privatization” of ATC. Or, at least, they had been convinced of this.

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. Under current FAA administrator Michael Huerta, there has been real progress. 

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 is not being sold out and ATC is not being turned over to a for-profit corporation. So far, that is not this White House.