Trump Air-Traffic Plan Hits Turbulence, Skeptics in Congress

  • Red-state Republican Moran of Kansas opposes measure
  • Proposal would create nonprofit to oversee flight tracking

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For President Donald Trump to succeed with his plan to place the air-traffic system outside government, he will need to win over lawmakers like Jerry Moran, a deeply conservative Republican senator from Kansas.

So far, it doesn’t look good for the president.

"I remain entirely opposed to privatizing air-traffic control," Moran said Monday in an interview just hours after Trump unveiled one of the signature elements of his plan to revamp U.S. infrastructure.

QuickTake How ‘Self-Help’ Guides Trump Infrastructure Plan

The president delivered a fiery denunciation of the existing flight-monitoring system and urged Congress to place it under a nonprofit corporation funded by new fees. But opposition of lawmakers like Moran -- who represents a state that is home to private-plane manufacturers -- combined with near-universal hostility to the idea by Democrats, makes it all but impossible to reach the 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

“I would say slim to none,” Craig Fuller, an aviation consultant who has monitored the fight over air-traffic control for years, said of the proposal’s chances. “I think it’s very difficult to get it done for a number of reasons.”

For one thing, there is a split in the industry. Airlines such as American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. cheered the president’s plan. But groups representing private-plane manufacturers, such as General Dynamics Corp.’s Gulfstream Aerospace, which worry about the service smaller airports would receive, issued statements saying it would have a negative impact on aviation. 

The Trump plan was originally championed by one of the few lawmakers who has been able to move bipartisan legislation in recent years, Republican Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. But it faces a fractured base in his own party and opposition from powerful friends on Capitol Hill.

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Prior story: Trump Backs Air-Traffic Spinoff to Fix ‘Broken’ System

The person holding much of the power over the bill in the Senate, John Thune, the South Dakota Republican chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, told reporters on Tuesday he doesn’t think the measure could currently win a majority in the Senate, let alone the 60 votes typically needed to head off a filibuster.

The president needs to get more constituencies on board, Thune said. In an emailed statement Monday, Thune stopped short of endorsing the measure. He said he was seeking "bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community."

In the past year, normally stalwart Republican groups such as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the conservative Heritage Foundation have raised objections to the plan. Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the leader of the powerful Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter opposing the air-traffic proposal in February.

"That would be very difficult to pass in the Senate," said another Republican opponent, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Inhofe said he would like to see changes in the proposed fees and other provisions before he could support it.

The chief labor groups that would be impacted were also divided. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, which had for years opposed separating the system from FAA, cautiously endorsed the plan introduced last year in Congress. The union issued a statement Monday saying it’s reviewing Trump’s plan. 

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which represents FAA technical workers, opposes the Trump plan. Several large airline unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association, backed it.

Shuster last year succeeded in getting the air-traffic measure passed from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he chairs. It was never brought up before the full House after the Senate let it die.

Related: Trump to Kick Off Infrastructure Drive With Air-Traffic Proposal

Shuster said he’s “not naive” and recognizes that the proposal will be difficult to pass. Still, Trump’s backing was an important milestone and he’d received many texts and emails Monday from other lawmakers who were now focused on it, he said.

“Presidential leadership on an issue is incredibly important, especially when you’re trying to do something as transformational as we’re doing with the FAA," he said.

The president’s tough tone -- he called the Federal Aviation Administration’s existing flight-tracking system “broken, antiquated, horrible” -- isn’t likely to sway anyone on the fence, said Doug Heye, a consultant who worked in the U.S. House for former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“As long as we have this constant barrage of tweets and outrage du jour, it makes Congress’ job of moving legislation that much harder,” Heye said.

Having the president behind the effort will help sway some congressional Republicans, but it’s not clear it will allay the concerns of many others and the White House proposal introduces some new potential opposition, said Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The proposal, for example, would allow the private corporation and not Congress to determine what fees are charged to use the system, DeFazio said.

“I don’t think that’s going to reassure the general aviation community, the business community, the cargo community, the drone community," he said.

Presidential Power

Still, for proponents of the plan, some of whom have been pushing for it for decades, seeing a high-profile endorsement from the president was encouraging.

Strong support from the president and members of congress are a good sign that “really transformative” structural change in air traffic could succeed, said Will Ris, former senior vice president for government affairs at American Airlines.

Watch Next: Trump Infrastructure Plan Begins With Air-Traffic Reform

“For the first time since the Clinton administration, there is a firm commitment to getting this done,” Ris said in an interview. “Nothing that is really worth doing is easy. The fight is engaged and the momentum has shifted significantly.”

— With assistance by Mary Schlangenstein, Anna Edgerton, and Steven T. Dennis

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