Trump budget proposes privatizing air traffic control, hiking TSA fee

President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress calls for shifting the air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration, and giving it to an independent, nongovernmental organization.

The spin-off would make managing the nation’s airspace "more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety," the budget proposal states.

The Trump administration also wants to increase the 9/11 Passenger Security Fee now assessed to all airline tickets, which helps fund the Transportation Security Administration, to cover 75 percent of the TSA’s costs.

The budget outline does not specify the amount of the fee increase, but earlier media reports have said the current $5.60 fee would rise by $1 for each flight on a trip to $6.60. 

Critics of privatizing air traffic control say it hands control of the airspace to the commercial airlines, while potentially making flying more expensive because user fees would likely be implemented. The current system is paid for, in part, by taxes on aviation fuel, fees paid by aircraft operators, and other sources.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, said his consumer group opposes handing over control of civilian air traffic control to an organization "that would be dominated by the airlines. It totally excludes passengers, who are paying for the whole thing. It gives away the entire infrastructure of air traffic control, which is worth tens of billions of dollars, to a private entity which looks, to me, a lot like Amtrak."

Hudson said that 90 percent of the public in surveys have said the FAA is doing a good job. However, “only 20 percent of the public think the airlines are doing a good job, and we're going to turn this over to the airlines?”

Most airlines and the National Air Traffic Controllers union favor shifting air traffic control out of the FAA to be free from congressional spending disputes, government shutdowns, and worker furloughs.  

"We don’t have a view on privatizing or staying in the FAA," said Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, an advocacy group for travelers. "However, we very strongly support a move to develop a steady funding stream. The system today is OK, but it’s really antiquated." Stable funding would speed efforts to move from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS to track flights, he said.

The controllers’ union says the FAA has been unable to resolve years of understaffing at many airports.

As for increasing the TSA passenger security fee, that fee more than doubled in 2014 from $2.50 for each leg of a trip to $5.60 as part of a deficit-reduction deal that followed a government shutdown. Since then, Congress has diverted part of the TSA fee to pay down federal debt.

Hudson said, "If you were to eliminate the diversion, TSA would be adequately funded and there wouldn’t seem to be a need to increase the fee."

Leocha said his members are not opposed to increasing the TSA fee "as long as the money goes to TSA."

Privatizing the flight navigation system was first proposed in an aviation bill in 2015 by Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Under Shuster’s proposal, a board made up of airlines and aviation stakeholders would oversee a new air traffic corporation.

Shuster on Thursday praised Trump’s budget blueprint. “This budget takes the next step in what our committee produced last year,” he said.

Delta Air Lines was the only major U.S. carrier in 2016 to oppose the House Republican plan.  

"The current U.S. air traffic control system is safer, has fewer delays, and is more cost effective than any privatized or separated air traffic control alternative in the world," Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, Steve Dickson, said in a statement. Delta has said turning over air traffic control to an independent group "will result in higher airfares for U.S. passengers."

Noncommercial flight operators, including general aviation fliers, expressed disappointment Thursday in the Trump administration’s plan. 

“Separating air traffic control from the FAA simply poses too may leaps of faith,” said National Air Transportation Association president Martin H. Hiller. “We will lose the momentum resulting from the current deployment of NextGen” technologies to modernize the air traffic system.

“Allowing airlines to establish the costs to operate in the air traffic control system risks investment in rural America and potentially forces general aviation out of the important airports and airways needed to connect the country,” Hiller said.

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