Trump Meeting With Airlines Heightens Opposition to ATC Reform

 - February 13, 2017, 11:51 AM

Business aviation and other interests are stepping up their campaigns against a push for a user-funded independent air traffic control system in light of last week’s meeting between President Donald Trump and airline and airport interests.

In a statement following the February 9 meeting, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said he is encouraged that President Trump is giving attention to the needs of the aviation system, but warned against placing control of the system in the hands of one segment within the industry.

“We’re delighted that, in [Thursday’s] meeting, the President made clear that aviation modernization is important; that’s a goal with which we agree, and the business aviation community will continue to be at the forefront of aviation-modernization efforts,” Bolen said. “That said, we are concerned that in [the] meeting, it appears that some airline interests wanted to shift the conversation away from taking a bipartisan approach to modernization, to focus instead on their decades-long objective of privatizing ATC, funding it with new user fees, and placing it under the governing control of a self-interested, airline-centric board of directors.”

Bolen cautioned that giving airline interests “sweeping authority” over the aviation system would enable them to make decisions such as which cities and airports get served.

During the meeting, Trump appeared receptive to a push by airlines for ATC reform, characterizing the current system as ill-equipped and badly managed. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, summarizing the meeting, said Trump praised the airlines and airports for moving two million passengers per day in spite of outdated equipment and “pledged to work closely with the airline industry to modernize the technology system.”

Afterward, Airlines for America president and CEO Nicholas Calio had said he was “encouraged by [Trump’s] in-depth understanding of our industry and the need to reform our air traffic control system.”

But Bolen countered, “The fact is, in this important debate, there are two sides. The President may have heard the airlines’ position….but surveys of everyday Americans have repeatedly shown that, by a significant majority, citizens oppose the notion of creating a privatized ATC system. The concerns of these citizens are well-founded; after all, the nation’s aviation system is a public asset, intended to serve the entire public.”

The Alliance for Aviation Across America, along with the League of Rural Voters and the Air Care Alliance, last week released the results of a poll showing 62 percent of the respondents opposed privatization of the nation’s ATC system, while only 26 percent supported it.

Conducted by Global Strategies Group, the poll involved 800 interviews of registered voters, representing various age groups, educational backgrounds, commercial flying habits and political affiliations, from January 30 through February 5.

The poll found a fairly even split to privatization of governmental functions as a concept—43 for versus 46 percent against—but much more opposition with privatization of FAA in particular. The poll also found that the FAA drew a 74 percent positive rating overall and 87 percent of respondents rated the FAA’s handling of ATC operations either as “good” or “excellent.”

Jeff Pollock, president of the Global Strategies Group, added the opposition to FAA privatization cut across all groups, with 65 percent of frequent fliers opposing and 61 percent of those who do not fly frequently also against it. Among respondents who voted for Hillary Clinton, 76 percent opposed. As for Trump voters, 49 percent opposed it, while only 39 percent favored privatizing the FAA.

“That really speaks to how people are understanding of the unique role the FAA plays in our air traffic control system,” said Air Care Alliance executive vice president Charles (Lindy) Kirkland. “We’re really happy to see the results confirm what most of us think and believe.”

“We all agree that we need to modernize our air traffic control system,” added Alliance for Aviation Across America executive director Selena Shilad. “The issues of modernization and privatization have gotten a bit conflated. The proposal to put air traffic control under the purview of a private board…makes us extremely nervous.” She added alliance members are wary of a system that would primarily be accountable to commercial operators.

“It’s clear that there are real and significant concerns about the notion of ATC privatization funded through new user fees,” Bolen added, saying, “It’s important that the President hear from all voices in the debate over this matter, and not just from a small, special-interest group of airline CEOs.”

While the business and rural interests outlined their concerns and latest poll results, an organization that represents consumer interests, the Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization, also came out with warnings following the Trump meeting.

“[The] meeting between President Trump and airline executives pulled the curtain back on the true incentives behind privatizing our nation's ATC system: corporate control at the exclusion of workers and taxpayers,” spokeswoman Julia Alschuler charged, adding, the “meeting makes clear that this would be an unprecedented giveaway to special interests in Washington.”