Trump Slams Air-Traffic System, Cheering Privatization Advocates

Updated on
  • Congressional effort to spin off air system stalled last year
  • President says he got information from his private pilot

Airline Stocks Jump After Trump Offers Support

President Donald Trump called the U.S. air-traffic system “obsolete” Thursday in comments that were cheered by proponents of taking the job of monitoring the skies away from government.

Trump, speaking at a meeting of airline executives and other aviation industry officials, made the strongest comments to date from the White House on problems with the air-traffic system. He echoed what lawmakers and executives who favor placing the air-traffic system in the hands of a nonprofit corporation have said.

“I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars, it’s a system that’s totally out of whack," Trump said at the meeting. Earlier he said: “And I can tell you that a lot of the new equipment that’s ordered is obsolete the day they order it. And that’s according to people that know, including my pilot.”

The president’s words -- which also included an apparent broadside aimed at the head of the Federal Aviation Administration -- drew rapid praise from airlines that favor splitting air-traffic from the FAA. Such a measure was included last year in House legislation setting FAA policy, but stalled in the Senate and wasn’t included in the final bill. Congress is taking up the matter again this year.

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While the FAA didn’t respond directly to the president’s comments, it issued a statement Thursday evening calling its efforts to upgrade air-traffic “successful” and outlining benefits airlines have enjoyed in recent years from the new technology. The airlines have helped set the agenda for the system, the agency said.

The FAA said it has spent $7.5 billion on the air-traffic upgrade called NextGen, and the investment "has resulted in $2.7 billion in benefits to passengers and the airlines to date and is expected to yield more than $160 billion in benefits through 2030,” according to the e-mailed statement.

Opponents of spinning off air-traffic control say that the plan would give too much oversight to airlines, that the government should maintain control for national security reasons and that the existing system isn’t broken.

“We are grateful to President Trump for hosting this meeting and were encouraged by his in-depth understanding of our industry and the need to reform our air-traffic control system,” said Nicholas Calio, chief executive officer of Airlines for America, which represents large carriers.

JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, who attended the meeting, said he found Trump’s comments about the need to modernize the system “extremely encouraging.”

Clipped Wings

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster has been pushing to spin off the air-traffic control system. In an interview this week with Bloomberg News, the Pennsylvania Republican said he wants Congress to limit the role of the FAA so that it would oversee air safety while a new entity would employ the controllers in airport towers and other control centers.

“This is a case where separating the regulator from the operator -- air-traffic control -- you leave the regulator back in government, where it belongs and that is good government policy,” he said.

“You need to modernize it,” Shuster said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars over the last decade or two for a new system, a GPS-based system, and haven’t gotten it.”

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Shuster said he discussed his proposals with Trump about two years ago. In 2016, Shuster became the first House committee chairman to back Trump’s candidacy.

Trump’s unorthodox, outsider view of government was also on display when he asked about the FAA administrator, who serves a five-year term that won’t expire until next year to shield the position from partisan politics.

"Is the head of the FAA a pilot, does anybody know?" Trump asked.

After being told the FAA chief isn’t, Trump said he should be. Michael Huerta, who has served in other government positions and was a managing director of the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, has held the top job at FAA since Jan. 7, 2013.

The state of the nation’s air-traffic system and the need for reform are highly controversial. Delta Air Lines Inc. split from Airlines for America in part over the issue because the company believes the U.S. system functions well.

Trump also hinted that he may intervene in the FAA’s NextGen modernization effort, just as he has done with Defense Department contracts including the F-35 fighter.

‘Right Equipment’

“I mean, it’s one thing to order equipment, but let’s order the right equipment,” Trump said in reference to unspecified aviation and airport systems. “Probably the wrong equipment costs more. Probably buy the right equipment for less money.”

“Because my pilot -- he’s a smart guy and he knows what’s going on -- says the government is using the wrong equipment and instituting a massive multibillion-dollar project, but they’re using the wrong type of equipment. So let’s find out about that.”

Last year’s proposal by Shuster didn’t make clear whether the billions of dollars in existing air-traffic equipment contracts would be continued or renegotiated. Companies making computers and communications systems for the FAA include Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and Harris Corp.

— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa, Michael Sasso, and Mary Schlangenstein

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