Safety at Risk Without U.S. Air Traffic Reform, Chao Says

  • Transportation Secretary defends President’s air-traffic plan
  • Fight over future of FAA’s air-control system moves to Senate

Trump Proposes to Take U.S. Air Travel ‘Into the Future’

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao defended President Donald Trump’s plan to remove air-traffic operations from the government, saying the system could no longer handle growth and “still maintain safety.”

Elaine Chao testifies June 7.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Skeptical senators from both parties on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee questioned Chao Wednesday, many saying they opposed the plan because the administration couldn’t guarantee that a private air-traffic system would protect the interests of small, rural airports.

“This is a tough sell in my state of Mississippi,” Republican Senator Roger Wicker said, joining other members of the president’s party who are opposed to the plan or are wavering. “And I think you’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle.”

Chao told the committee that a non-profit corporation would be better suited to overseeing the adoption of the new technology needed to keep traffic flowing.

“Passengers will benefit because these reforms will speed up delivery of new technology that will reduce delays and congestion,” she said.

The president on Monday opened a week-long series of events to promote his plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure with a signing ceremony for a plan to turn over the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic system to a nonprofit, delivering a stinging assessment of the agency’s operations.

Flight Safety

While Trump said the FAA has wasted billions of dollars on new equipment and he promised more direct and efficient flights under a revamped system, Chao’s written testimony was the first to say the agency would not be able to keep flights safe in the future. As skies become more congested, that leads to more delays and indirect flight routes, Chao said.

“What this means is that we do not have a system that can handle increasing capacity and still maintain safety,” she said.

Chao did not raise the safety concerns in her shorter oral testimony and didn’t provide specifics in her written testimony. Aviation accidents attributed to air-traffic errors or system failures are rare, according to National Transportation Safety Board records. There hasn’t been a fatal airline crash in the U.S. attributed to any such issues in more than a decade, according to NTSB.

Advocates of separating air traffic from the FAA believe it will enhance safety by creating a more arm’s length distance between the regulator and the operator, DJ Gribbin, a special assistant to the president, told reporters Monday as the plan was unveiled. Under the proposal, the FAA would continue to regulate and monitor the new air-traffic corporation.

Shuster Bill

A similar plan to remove air traffic operations from the FAA didn’t get traction in Congress last year and was never voted on. Trump’s proposal is based largely on that legislation, introduced by Representative Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Shuster plans to reintroduce the measure by the end of the month, he said in an interview.

The proposal has been endorsed by most airlines, including American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union has said it’s open to the idea. Airlines argue that a corporation would be better able to introduce new technology and its funding, based on user fees for aircraft, would be more stable than Congress’ budget process.

‘‘We’re all in, and very supportive,” JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes said in an interview Sunday. “Any opportunity for the system to work better is something that our customers are going to benefit from.”

Opponents to Plan

However, a coalition of groups including private-aircraft manufacturers and operators, as well as other FAA unions, oppose the idea. Joined by most Democratic lawmakers, they say that a new air-traffic organization isn’t necessary because flight delays have declined in recent years and the new corporation would give airlines too much power.

Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the Commerce committee, said Tuesday he doesn’t believe there are enough votes to win Senate approval unless Trump can convince some of those opponents. Chao didn’t provide specifics when Thune asked her how the administration planned to ensure a new system would protect private aviation interests at small airports.

The chief advocate for Trump’s air traffic plan -- airlines -- were repeatedly criticized during the hearing. Carriers have received bad publicity over several recent high-profile incidents, including a doctor who was injured after being dragged off a United Continental Holdings Inc. flight in Chicago.

Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said airlines, which would be able to nominate at least some of the board members to oversee an air-traffic corporation, should have to show improved customer service and reliability before such a plan moved forward.

No Airline Control

"This air-traffic control system isn’t going to be controlled by airlines,” Chao said.

The measure also faces high hurdles in the House. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who leads the Appropriations Committee panel that oversees FAA’s budget, told reporters Tuesday passage in that chamber is “highly unlikely.” He called it a flawed plan that would give too much control to airlines.

In other testimony, Chao asked Senators to support an administration proposal to give the government more authority to detect, track and disable drones it considers a security threat. Administration agencies drafted legislation and presented it to the Senate and House Armed Services committees, she said.

“Drones present unique security challenges,” she said. The FAA also is working with the Justice, Homeland Security and Defense departments on better ways to identify and track drones as part of its effort to craft regulations allowing small unmanned craft to fly closer to people.

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