The Trump administration released its first federal budget proposal on March 16, for the first time revealing its support for calls to restructure the FAA by creating a separate entity to manage air traffic control. The U.S. Fiscal Year 2018 budget would also eliminate funding for the Essential Air Service (EAS) program that subsidizes airline flights to rural airports, a longstanding goal of congressional Republicans.
President Donald Trump’s $1.15 trillion “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” proposes substantial cuts to discretionary spending by various federal agencies; the Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA’s parent organization, would see its discretionary spending reduced by 13 percent, from $18.6 billion to $16.2 billion. Discretionary spending represents about 19 percent of the DOT’s $98 billion overall budget.
A summary the White House Office of Management and Budget released states that the blueprint initiates a reauthorization process in Congress to shift the FAA’s responsibility for the nation’s ATC system “to an independent, non-governmental organization,” language that approximates what the House Transportation Committee under chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) proposed but failed to advance through reauthorization legislation in the last year of the Obama administration. The spin-off would render the system “more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety,” the Trump proposal states. “This would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall.”
Offering a prelude to the coming battle in Congress, Shuster issued a statement hailing the proposed ATC spin-off, which counts among its major proponents the influential airline industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A). “For too long, the federal government has been the impediment in updating our ATC operation to a world-class, state-of-the-art system,” Shuster declared. “Like [they do for] any transformative change in Washington, entrenched interest groups will do and say anything to protect their parochial interests. But the facts are not on their side. The President’s budget rejects adherence to the status quo, and I applaud his leadership to disrupt the old way of thinking.”
The House Transportation Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), decried the Trump administration’s “Skinny Budget,” on several counts, starting with what critics of the ATC spin-off describe as a “privatization” of the system that favors the airlines. “For the last two years, opponents of this short-sighted plan have raised serious concerns about whether ATC privatization would guarantee safety, protect national security, expedite new technology, and keep our aviation system solvent,” DeFazio said. “Proponents have failed to answer any of the serious questions we have raised. Air traffic control privatization will not benefit the flying public, and it definitely will not benefit taxpayers who will be on the hook for bailing out the private ATC corporation if it fails.”
The budget blueprint contains a declaration of Trump administration goals for transportation that had been heretofore missing. At her Senate confirmation hearing on January 11, then Transportation Secretary-nominee Elaine Chao was noncommittal when asked for her opinion about ATC restructuring, saying only that a “national discussion” was needed to decide the best way forward for system modernization. On February 9, Trump hosted a White House meeting with airline and airport executives, who came away encouraged that the President appeared to support their priorities.
Business aviation groups remain strongly opposed to the proposal. “NATA is disappointed the budget blueprint contains language to explore corporatizing air traffic control. We believe Transportation Secretary Chao’s call during her confirmation hearing for national dialogue and consensus is a more appropriate way to approach this issue,” said NATA president Martin Hiller.
Hiller added the proposal to separate ATC from the FAA “simply poses too many leaps of faith,” and said, “NATA will continue to work with the new administration and Congress toward a more efficient FAA, with a priority on educating them about the risks posed by handing over our nation’s air traffic control system to special interests.”
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen reiterated his opposition and warnings that general aviation operators “could have their access to airports and airspace threatened.”