Ted Mann and Michael Bender WALL STREET JOURNAL
Trump to Push for Privatization of Air-Traffic Control
June 4, 2017
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  • In his new infrastructure push, President Donald Trump will embrace a longstanding goal of some aviation experts and lawmakers: transferring control of the nation’s air-traffic system to a new nonprofit corporation, which they say would mean a more nimble and cost-effective approach.

    Control by the Federal Aviation Administration, these advocates say, is an antiquated model that falls short of the best practices used in other countries and has squelched upgrades that would allow planes to travel more efficiently.

    Rep. Bill Shuster, (R., Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has long pushed for the plan, arguing that similar systems have proven effective in Europe and in Canada. Mr. Shuster plans to join Mr. Trump for a White House event announcing the proposal on Monday, his aides said.

    Overhauling air-traffic control would be complex, involving the privatization of a federal workforce of some 30,000 people. The administration proposes moving air traffic operations off the federal budget, eliminating taxes that currently pay for the system while allowing the new operators to impose user fees.

    Supporters say it would speed the adoption of technologies usually referred to as “next-gen” air-traffic control, using satellite-based navigation to guide airliners instead of ground-based radar.

    The new system could mean more efficient landing patterns and routes for planes, supporters say, and could let air-traffic controllers move more planes per hour through the nation’s busiest air corridors—one reason that next-gen has been eagerly awaited by executives at major airlines and airports.

    But some lawmakers and aviation officials are wary of privatization, including those from rural states who worry that a private system would neglect less-populated areas. Others are concerned that a new system would give too much influence to big airlines. Some fear it wouldn’t determine user fees fairly or guarantee appropriate access for all aircraft to airports and air corridors.

    Privatization is opposed by many Democrats, and it isn’t clear if the White House’s endorsement will sway enough Republican senators to change that chamber’s overwhelming rejection of privatization less than a year ago.

    The Trump administration’s budget released earlier this year included a proposal for privatizing the air-traffic control system with a three-year phase-in.

    Under Mr. Shuster’s proposal, the air-traffic control system would no longer be dependent on the federal budget to raise funds to invest in the next-gen system, because it would deploy user fees to fund operations.

    The new administration has faced the question of how to handle air-traffic control since it took office. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao deflected questions on the topic during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, which includes lawmakers who oppose the proposal.

    But the idea received an important boost in May when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote to Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) that the Pentagon would support privatization. The military wants to be sure it would retain the ability to protect national security, for example by closing airspace if necessary.

    Mr. Mattis acknowledged there were “potential risks regarding DOD’s national security responsibilities” and said the Pentagon has formed a committee to evaluate what “linkages” it would need with a privatized air-traffic control organization.

    White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn signaled that the administration would seek to ease doubts about the privatization plan among lawmakers from rural states, where some have been concerned that a private system would focus on the busiest air travel markets and underinvest in small airports.

    “There is money to make sure that rural airports get protected in this process as well,” Mr. Cohn said Friday.

    Scott Rechler, who as a former official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey helped oversee that region’s airports, applauded the air-traffic control move as an example of smart privatization.

    User fees from airplane tickets could go directly into infrastructure that speeds up air travel and cuts fuel costs, he said, making the privatization an investment rather than “financial gimmickry.”

    “There’s clearly value in this,” said Mr. Rechler, a Democrat now runs a real-estate company and consulted with Mr. Trump’s transition team.

    —Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.

    Write to Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com and Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com