The White House Wants to Privatize the Air Traffic Control

by | Jun 21, 2017

Last Updated May 23, 2024
Air Traffic Control


President Trump has proposed moving the nations’ air traffic control functions from the federal government to a private non-profit organization. He sent a list of principles to Congress saying, “It’s time to join the future. That is why I’m proposing new principles to Congress for air traffic control reform, making flights quicker, safer, and more reliable. Crucially, air traffic controllers support these reforms themselves. They’re the ones that know the systems that they want. They know it better than anybody.” He also said employees will be “highly valued” under the new plan.

Trump’s Plan

Trump’s plan resembles the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, introduced last year by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-PA. The White House stated that this bill was a “good foundation”.

Trump said, “There are amazing people that know this system so well. And under our plan, they will have more financial security, professional opportunity, and far superior equipment. Today, we are taking the first important step to clearing the runway for more jobs, lower prices, and much, much, much better transportation.”

Under this new proposal, air traffic control operations would no longer fall within the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration and become a private non-profit group, governed by an independent board of directors made up of representatives from airlines, employee unions, and general aviation and airport trade groups. There are 30,000 employees this would affect. However, the FAA would still maintain control of general aviation safety.

The new organization would still honor existing collective bargaining agreements. Instead of taxes funding the organization, the new non-profit entity would establish a user fee levied on flight passengers.

Trump said the plan would improve the nations’ ability to implement a system for tracking aircraft via GPS, rather than radio and radar communications. “Air traffic controllers keep us safe every day, even though they use this badly outdated system. That is why we want to give them access to capital markets and investors so they can obtain the best, newest and safest technology available.”

A special assistant to the president for infrastructure said this proposal will improve safety because it allows the FAA to conduct more objective oversight over air traffic control. “There would be a greater oversight because you won’t have the same agency overseeing its own potential errors. The FAA has done a great job, but it’s a good management practice to make them separate.”

Union Reactions

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) supported Shuster’s bill last year. Their president, Paul Rinaldi said, “NATCA shares the administration’s commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System with a stable, predictable funding stream. We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our unions’ principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce.” NATCA represents around 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers, and other air safety employees.

However, other employee groups remain unconvinced that privatizing the FAA is a good idea. A group of 7 unions representing FAA employees, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the FAA Managers Association, and the National Federation of Federal Employees sent a letter to Congress last month opposing the effort to privatize the FAA. The groups wrote, “Quite simply, overhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth. Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.”

Sen. John Thune, R-SD chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He noted that any bill reforming air traffic control requires Democratic support and historically that hasn’t happened when privatization is on the table. “The FAA’s effort to improve air travel safety and efficiency by modernizing air traffic control has been hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and poor planning. As we move forward in discussing potential reforms, getting a bill to President Trump’s desk will require bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community on a way forward.”

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) said, “President Trump’s plan to implement this proposal would cut federal spending, make the government more effective and efficient, and reduce taxes for passengers.”

Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO president Mike Peronne said his union opposed the plan for privatization because it was “risky” and an “unnecessary step at this pivotal point in its modernization”.


“True progress is being made through Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) programs,” Peronne said. “Breaking apart the system to establish a monopoly will take the focus off the substantial progress already being made. This would slow down enhancements and possibly compromise safety to fix an unbroken system. The FAA employees represented by PASS ensure that this country’s National Airspace System is operating safely and efficiently every day. Stripping air traffic control from the federal government will only introduce uncertainty and risk.”

NextGen is the FAA’s modernization plan for air traffic control.

According to the proposed FY2018 budget, the non-profit entity would begin to take over air traffic control in 2021. A 13-member board would provide oversight for the non-profit and would include members of unions, general aviation stakeholders, and government representatives.

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