Donald Trump on Monday unveiled his proposal to hand over control of the USA air-traffic control system to a non-profit corporation as he kicked off a week-long push for his infrastructure plan.
"For too many years, our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs us billions and billions of dollars in lost hours and lost dollars themselves", Trump said at a White House speech touting the plan.
Trump has been critical in the past of the FAA and air traffic control, saying his personal pilot has complained about how out of date and inefficient the agency is. "It's a system where everyone benefits from this", White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said in a conference call with reporters.
Like the rest of the agenda, the privatization of air traffic control is more government reform and deregulation than doling out wads of taxpayer money for projects. With the newfound efficiency of Global Positioning System navigation, he figured, "we will save over 25 percent of the jet fuel in this country". Air traffic controllers will have "more financial security, professional opportunities, and far superior equipment, the best equipment in the world". In 2016, a bill introduced by Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) helped revive the calls for a shift.
At a briefing for infrastructure reporters on Saturday, Trump's Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn said that spinning off air traffic control from the FAA would be an "enormous benefit" for all US businesses and would improve safety by separating ATC functions from the safety regulator at the FAA.
Along with privatizing air traffic control, the president's proposal would give this new non-profit entity control of a $36 billion modernization program for airports.
The administration has released very few details about how it plans to invest in waterways and roads, and all of Trump's policy statements have been removed from his campaign website.
The primary objective here is to finally convert airspace navigation from land-based radar to Global Positioning System, a $36 billion project known as NextGen. The FAA predicts complete conversion to NextGen will require upwards of $37 billion, a fee that will be shared by the federal government, airports and the aviation industry.
The White House could win support in Congress especially with the backing of key interest groups, including the airlines and the air traffic controllers union. Still, supporters say it's an idea whose time has come: Other countries have privatized their ATC functions without dire consequences, they say, citing Canada, Germany, Australia, and France.
The administration looks at the ATC system as a technology business within the FAA. "Members opposed to the loss of jobs in their district have long blocked large-scale consolidation of the FAA's aging and inefficient facilities". Mr Trump's budget proposal said the change would take effect in 2021 and estimated the reform would increase the budget deficit by about $45bn (£35bn) over 10 years.
The big issue, of course, is who would run the board. "In my experience, "stakeholder" airlines don't specify, build, buy or operate information technology solutions particularly well or cost-effectively", writes the aviation consultant Robert Mann Jr. for Brookings. He said the users of the system will be in control of managing it.
Finally, there's the related question of money. The bill authorizes that corporation to impose user fees, which would replace the current tax on airline tickets. "Besides being costly and disruptive in implementation, such a privatization scheme would upset the partnership between the FAA and the Department of Defense, which provides 15 to 20 percent of ATC services in this country", Nelson said.
That, combined with the potential to privatize national air traffic control in general, could mean that drone delivery might happen sooner in the USA than anticipated, since the regulatory timeline would be less reliant on FAA activity, though the agency still has to craft rules about flying over people, at night and beyond line of sight of an operator.