(Adds comment on business aviation opposition)
By Ginger Gibson
WASHINGTON Dec 8 The chances that the federal
government could hand off the U.S. air traffic control system to
private management are increasing, say advocates who report they
are getting supportive feedback from President-elect Donald
Trump and his team.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, who chairs the House of
Representatives Transportation Committee, has met with Trump and
incoming Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to make his case
for moving the nation's 14,500 air traffic controllers and their
mission out of government control and into a non-profit
Shuster and other privatization advocates argue that
spinning off air traffic control into a non-government entity
would allow for a more efficient system and rapid,
cost-effective improvements of technology, in part by avoiding
the government procurement process.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union
that represents controllers, came out in favor of Shuster's
legislation earlier this year.
But he has run into bipartisan opposition in both the House
and the Senate and push back from some of the nation's airlines.
Opponents say the U.S. system is so large that privatization
would not save money, would drive up ticket costs and could
create a national security risk.
There also are concerns that airlines would dominate the
private-company board and limit access to airports by business
jets. The National Business Aviation Association, which
represents thousands of corporate and individual business jet
owners, strongly opposed Shuster's bill earlier this year.
"Our nation's airspace and airport system should benefit the
public and not be controlled by airline interests," the
organization said in April.
The landscape might change once Trump, who campaigned on
improving the nation's infrastructure and is a regular user of
his own private plane, occupies the White House on Jan. 20.
Apart from Shuster, officials and lobbyists who work in
infrastructure construction say the idea of privatizing air
traffic controllers as part of an infrastructure bill is gaining
steam, especially among those who are concerned that Congress
will not be able to pass a separate sweeping transportation
Congress has been averse to spending money, but privatizing
air traffic control systems would shift the cost of upgrades
from tax coffers to air travelers, the kind of move that makes
lawmakers view it as free instead of an increase in federal
"I've had some conversations with Trump transition folks and
they seemed very interested in putting this in their larger
infrastructure bill," Shuster said.
The air traffic control system is in need of expensive
upgrades, including the multi-billion dollar implementation of
"NextGen," a system that would utilize GPS to direct aircraft
instead of the outdated use of radar.
In Shuster's vision, the move would not enrich any
particular company as air traffic control would be overseen by a
nonprofit that reinvests any profits back into infrastructure
Shuster first broached the subject with Trump two years ago,
he said, and the two have discussed it several additional times.
He met with Chao last week.
It could take a strong presidential push for the
privatization effort. Earlier this year, it failed to get even
enough support from Republican members for a vote on the House
In February, Delta released a study arguing that
privatization would cost air travelers more and would not
achieve any savings.
Many air traffic controller operations are funded through
ticket taxes - which are levied on every flight. Historically,
those taxes have been kept low by the government's aversion to
raising rates. But should the ticket tax become the control of
an outside board, opponents are concerned that could drive up
(Additional reporting by Alwyn Scott in New York; Editing by
Linda Stern and Alistair Bell)