White House Releases Principles to Privatize Air-Traffic Control

The executive branch argued that a private nonprofit is better equipped to handle the country's 300 airports, but consensus remains elusive.

by / June 6, 2017

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees two essential aspects of aviation: regulating the physical planes and their equipment, and operating air traffic control (ATC), which guides planes in and out of the nation’s 378 commercial airports. On June 5, the White House issued a set of principles for privatizing the FAA's air traffic control functionality.

The plan introduced by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Congressman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., would create a private, nonprofit corporation to operate, manage and control ATC nationwide. The entity would be managed by a board composed of stakeholders includingrepresentatives from major airline corporations, labor and advocates among others.

If the plan were approved, it would be one of the largest transfers of U.S. public assets to the private sector, according to the The New York Times. Nearly 35,000 employees are currently in roles that may be affected. The ATC workers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, has endorsed the action, after receiving collective bargaining rights, and wage and benefits guarantees.

While explaining the action, Trump relied on arguments that the private sector could handle the duties more efficiently.

"Today we're proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally," he said, lamenting on the state of ATC, calling the "ancient, broken, antiquated" and "horrible" system "stuck, painfully, in the past." He also said his reforms would make it safer and more reliable.

The ATC has a long history of criticism, and airlines have lobbied for its privatization for more than 30 years. The argument is that private ownership can ease the pains of procurement and federal budgetary disputes. According to NPR, Trump was also influenced by his personal pilot, who has “complained about how out of date and inefficient the agency is.”

Some of that reputation has been bolstered by the troubled “NextGen” program that was meant to modernize equipment and practices. Approved in 2003, the program has turned into an ongoing maintenance and replacement initiative to phase out old and outdated equipment. Trump has not been shy about criticizing the program. "Honestly, they didn't know what the hell they were doing," he said.

A similar plan was introduced during the Clinton administration in 1994 that would have had a similar effect on the system. While defending the position, Trump invoked Canada’s experience in the creating a private nonprofit air-traffic corporation, NavCanada.

Opponents have already pumped the brakes on the plan, arguing that putting ATC in the hands of the few could lead to further domination of large aviation companies. Also, the purported efficiencies are not widely accepted. “There does not appear to be conclusive evidence that any of these models is either superior or inferior to others or to existing government-run air traffic services ...” a 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service noted.

While nothing has gone into effect, the actions taken were largely symbolic. The ideology does fall in line with the rest of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) ethos of emphasizing private control of infrastructure. Under Chao, the DOT has championed the public-private partnership model as a way to fix the country’s failing roads and bridges.

*This story was updated June 8, to clarify the composition of the proposed board.

Platforms & Programs