WASHINGTON — President Trump continued in his budget blueprint Monday to support moving air-traffic controllers out of the Federal Aviation Administration and into a non-profit corporation, which is hotly debated in Congress.
“Similar to successful efforts in many other developed countries, the goal is to create a system that can respond to changing air travel demand by deploying cutting-edge technology and giving airlines, general aviation users and passengers a system that is a good steward of their financial resources,” the budget said.
Airlines have sought the change for years to hasten the modernization of the system from ground-based radar to satellite-based tracking to guide aircraft in increasingly crowded skies.
But lawmakers from rural states and members of the general-aviation community have opposed privatization, worried that airlines will dominate the system to their own advantage.
Congress is hotly debating the issue as part of FAA legislation, which prompted short-term extensions for the agency that expire March 31. Lawmakers on all sides of the issue want a decision soon to provide a four- or five-year bill so the FAA can better plan for the long term.
In the House, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., won approval of legislation in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that he heads. He proposes to put controllers under a non-profit board governed by industry experts.
But in the Senate, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee didn’t include privatization in its version of the FAA bill because of skepticism about how it would work.
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Trump called the privatization effort one of his top priorities as part of his first budget a year ago and a way to spur development across the country.
Airlines are pushing hard for the proposal because more precise guidance of flights is expected to allow more planes in the sky, while routes are shorter and more efficient, to save fuel and reduce emissions.
Even the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers, supported the move generally as a way to provide more stable funding than annual congressional appropriations. Two brief government shutdowns since the start of the year, which disrupt modernization planning even as controllers remain on the job, reinforce their argument.
But general-aviation advocates fear that the corporation will favor airlines at busy airports and will charge higher fees than the government. Groups including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Air Transportation Association and the National Business Aviation Association issued a joint statement opposing the effort.
Lawmakers who decide how much money to spend each year say that people who complain about aviation, including the fees the corporation will charge, won’t have anyone to hear their complaints if Congress no longer oversees the system.
Critics have also argued that the government shouldn’t give away FAA equipment and property worth billions of dollars without charging the corporation for it.
The top Democrat on Shuster’s committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, said the proposal would hand over billions of dollars of taxpayer-owned equipment and property to a private corporation run by special interests.
SOURCE: USA TODAY