Melanie Zanona THE HILL
Turbulence for Trump on air traffic control
June 11, 2017
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  • President Trump will need to put a lot more muscle behind a proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government if he wants the idea to get off the ground.

    Trump signed formal legislative principles at the White House on Monday, calling on Congress to transfer the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation as part of a broader push to modernize U.S. infrastructure.

    But divisions over the plan were on full display this week during back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill.

    “There isn’t consensus on this committee on that particular issue. … I would suggest that the administration make every effort possible to try and find consensus among the stakeholder community,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during a hearing this week.

    “But one thing we won’t probably do is wait forever.”

    Here are five hurdles that the spinoff proposal must overcome.

    Senate Republicans

    Trump must win over members of his own party, particularly in the Senate, where many GOP lawmakers remain skeptical or even outright opposed to peeling away air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

    A similar proposal for air traffic control stalled on the House floor last year amid opposition from GOP tax-writers and appropriators.

    Many lawmakers are concerned about granting the power to collect fees to a nongovernmental agency and worried about removing the system from congressional control, thus leaving Congress with almost no way to hold operations accountable.

    Rural Republicans fear small airports won’t be adequately represented under the new model.“This is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi, where small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them, and I think we’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at a hearing. “The sale needs to be made, and needs to be made convincingly.”

    Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, doubts that the spinoff proposal will be included in a must-pass FAA reauthorization bill later this year because “it has become very controversial.”

    “We’ve attempted to take things that are controversial out of the FAA reauthorization,” he told reporters Tuesday.

    Opposed Democrats

    Democrats are strongly united in opposition to the spinoff plan.

    The party shares concerns with the GOP about removing operations from congressional oversight.

    But they have also blasted the plan for handing over billions of dollars in government assets to a corporation for free.

    Trump’s plan calls for transferring the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit agency at “no charge,” and would require the government to pay the private entity for any environmental liabilities associated with the transfer of assets. 

    The FAA has spent $7 billion on a modernization program called NextGen, but has been slow to implement it, which is part of the administration’s argument for moving operations to a private entity.

    But Democrats have called the idea a corporate giveaway, pointing out that Canada and the United Kingdom were both compensated when they set up similar outside models.

    “Why shouldn’t the government of the United States be similarly compensated for these taxpayer assets?” asked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

    Adding to the deficit

    Trump’s air traffic control plan could run into problems if it adds to the federal deficit.

    The new entity in charge of air traffic control operations would raise revenue through user fees instead of aviation taxes and remove 30,000 FAA workers from the federal payroll, though those workers would still retain federal healthcare and pension benefits.

    But doing so may add to the deficit by about $46 billion over 10 years, according to the administration’s budget proposal released earlier this year, because of projected growth at the agency. The proposal notes, however, that the actual spending difference would amount to about $20 billion, based on historical trends.

    Still, the idea could be a tough sell — particularly among fiscal conservatives.

    General aviation users

    General aviation users, which include small planes and corporate jets, have long lead the charge against privatization efforts.

    Their chief concern is that they may have to pay high fees under the new system, which they claim would give outsize power to the commercial airline industry.

    Trump’s principles do not indicate whether they would be exempt from the new entity’s user fees.

    The general users are also worried they could lose access to the airspace, and have questioned whether the contract towers in rural communities would continue to operate without interruption.

    Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has repeatedly assured that general aviation users and rural areas would be adequately protected under the new model, pointing out that general aviation users and airlines would each have two seats on the corporation’s 13-member board.

    She also said the spinoff model would better modernize air traffic control operations than the government and thus improve the overall system for everyone.

    But the administration may have to work harder to get rural interests on board.

    “I would remain skeptical in you indicating rural American contract towers would be more secure,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) “I would put my eggs in the basket of Congress rather than a 13-member private board making decisions nationwide. 

    Legislative pileup

    Lawmakers are working on long-term legislation to reauthorize the FAA, whose legal authority expires at the end of September.

    But a multi-year bill was already going to be difficult, as Congress will also be working this summer on debt ceiling, tax reform, healthcare and spending bills.

    Trump’s call to separate air traffic control — which would represent a dramatic shift in how the country’s air system operates — adds yet another knotty issue to lawmakers’ plate. 

    The push for a similar spinoff proposal last year tanked efforts to advance a long-term FAA bill, forcing lawmakers to enact a short-term patch. Lawmakers warned that the same thing could happen again if they pursue Trump’s plan.

     “With the administration’s support of this concept, the chances of getting a long-term FAA reauthorization in my view have now been diminished,” Moran said.