President Donald Trump told airline and airport executives Thursday that he supports privatizing America’s air traffic control system, according to a top airline industry lobbyist who was in the meeting.
Nick Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, the trade association that represents the major airlines, said after the White House meeting that Trump was “extraordinarily positive” when airline executives urged him to spin off air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.
That corporation would most likely be dominated by the major airlines.
Asked if Trump committed to back a bill to do that, Calio said: “I think he’s on track to do that.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks.
Unlike the U.S., most countries separate their air traffic control operations from their aviation safety oversight agency. But it is unusual to actually privatize air traffic operations. Canada is an exception.
Airlines — with the notable exception of Delta — have complained the FAA is taking too long to modernize the air traffic system. Republican congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the House transportation committee, introduced legislation to privatize the system last year, but the bill stalled after opposition from other top lawmakers and from business aircraft operators.
Some lawmakers in both parties object to removing air traffic operations from the control of Congress because it would reduce their influence over aviation. But proponents say the FAA’s modernization program, called NextGen, has been hampered by government shutdowns and budget uncertainties. By removing the air traffic system from congressional control, they hope to provide the certainty necessary to make long-term financial commitments.
Business aircraft operators fear the corporation’s board would be dominated by airlines, and that they would lose access to larger airports to make more room for airlines and be asked to pay more to finance the system.
The privatization effort has the backing of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, although other FAA unions are opposed.
Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, told Trump during the meeting the top priority for helping airlines would be to “modernize the air traffic control system.” He complained that money spent on the system has not helped improve it in the past.
“I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars, it’s a system that’s totally out of whack,” Trump said. The president asked why airline corporations had allowed the government to invest in a faulty system. Kelly said airlines are not “in control” of those decisions.
Trump said he believes the system could potentially work better if FAA was run by a pilot. The current administrator, Michael Huerta, a holdover from the Obama administration, isn’t a pilot.
FAA officials maintain that they have made significant progress over the past 10 years of the modernization effort, and that airlines have begun to reap the benefits of those changes.
Besides Southwest, Trump met with the chief executives of Delta, United, and JetBlue, executives from air cargo companies, and officials from several airports.
Koenig reporting from Dallas.