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Trump wants to privatize air traffic control. Here’s what that means.

- June 5, 2017

Change could soon be coming to the skies above America. At least that’s what the Trump administration is hoping for.

Earlier Monday, President Trump laid out his vision for overhauling the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the agency that oversees all aspects of civil aviation. Part of Trump’s vision involves privatizing the agency’s air traffic control (ATC) function. Here’s what you should know about it.

How does air traffic control currently work?

Air traffic services are provided by the FAA. The agency has within its ranks more than 13,000 licensed controllers who are spread across the country at regional control centers. The agency also employs tens of thousands of engineers, technicians and specialists who maintain the technology and infrastructure needed to keep the skies open and safe.

The FAA is largely funded by aviation user fees. Taxes are imposed on such things as passenger tickets, air travel miles and jet fuel, with the revenue being deposited into a trust fund. However, the use of these funds must be authorized by Congress as part of the annual appropriations process.

What exactly has Trump proposed?

The president’s proposal transfers responsibility for providing air traffic services from the FAA to a private, nonprofit organization. The process is expected to unfold over three years, taking 30,000 FAA employees — controllers and technicians included — off the federal payroll, “at no charge.”

White House officials say the new entity will be funded entirely by user fees and overseen by representatives from airlines, unions, general aviation and airports among others.

Trump’s plan is based largely on legislation crafted by Rep. Bill Shuster. The Pennsylvania Republican, who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pushed for privatization last year but his efforts stalled. Presidential backing gives those efforts new life.

What are the main criticisms of the current system?

There are several. Some argue that because the FAA gets its funds from Congress, the agency ends up obliging political interests rather than the passengers it is set up to serve. According to the FAA, the budget uncertainty created by this model affects its ability to perform its duties.

Another concern is the agency’s organizational structure. In addition to providing air traffic services, the FAA also provides safety oversight for those services. This, some worry, creates an inherent conflict of interest. Advocates of change point to a 2001 International Civil Aviation Organization recommendation that signatory states (including the United States) separate air traffic functions from safety oversight within two years.

Finally, critics say that government bureaucracy makes it hard to adopt new technologies that benefit the flying public. They suggest a nongovernmental organization would be better positioned to do so, more nimbly cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that has long hindered the FAA.

What are the main criticisms of Trump’s proposal?

Many Democrats argue that changing the status quo is unnecessary given that flying in the United States is as safe as it’s ever been. They also point to recent computer glitches at major U.S. airlines, questioning whether these carriers can actually handle more advanced technologies.

Corporate jet pilots also oppose the plan as do their counterparts in general aviation. Both groups worry that user fees levied by a private corporation will drive up the cost of flying. Others argue that privatized governance gives too much control of the nation’s skies to a select few — most notably airline executives — for their own benefit.

Can this actually be done?

The White House certainly hopes so. Privatizing the largest and arguably most complex air traffic system in the world would be a huge political win. But it won’t be easy.

Many Democrats disagree with the idea of turning over taxpayer funded infrastructure — like control towers, navigation antennas and radar displays — to a private corporations for no charge. Some Republicans wonder whether a private entity can legally impose what may be viewed as taxes on the flying public. Perhaps most importantly, many lawmakers from across the aisle are hesitant to cede regulatory authority — akin to political power — to others.

Ashley Nunes is a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics.