Battle brewing over air traffic control privatization

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, is the Senate Commerce Committee’s ranking member. Nelson is opposed to privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system, which President Donald Trump made a priority on Monday.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, is the Senate Commerce Committee’s ranking member. Nelson is opposed to privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system, which President Donald Trump made a priority on Monday. AP

President Donald Trump threw his weight behind a proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system on Monday, and a White House adviser called the multibillion dollar effort “low-hanging fruit” that can get through Congress quickly.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson doesn’t see it that way.

Nelson, up for reelection in 2018, is the top Democrat on the Senate committee which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration. He fought for years against proposals to hand the nation’s air traffic control system over to a private non-profit, which he argues will hurt smaller airports and recreational flights.

“The safety of the flying public should not be for sale,” Nelson said Monday. “Handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take.”

Nelson’s opposition has been successful for years, as Democrats and Republicans from rural states fretted about privatization’s effect on small airports and recreational aviation. A privatization bill proposed by House Transportation chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., didn’t even make it to the House floor last Congress.

But President Trump, with Shuster at his side, pitched air traffic control privatization as a win for consumers on Monday, putting pressure on congressional Republicans to get on board.

“For too many years, our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs us billions and billions of dollars in lost hours and lost dollars themselves,” Trump said at a White House speech touting the plan.

Trump, who became impatient with Congress’ efforts to repeal Obamacare in recent months, is using Shuster’s stalled legislation as a blueprint to push for privatization.

“Chairman Shuster did a good job of putting together a package,” said D.J. Gribbin, a White House adviser on infrastructure policy. “It seemed like naturally low-hanging fruit from a policy perspective.”

But in addition to Nelson, two top Republican Senators have publicly opposed the effort in recent months.

“The public would not be well-served exempting any part of the FAA from annual congressional oversight,” said a letter from Senate Appropriations chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Transportation Subcommittee chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine. “A privatized system would provide customers with no recourse for complaints or mistreatment.”

If three Republican senators vote against the proposal combined with unified Democratic opposition, the plan would fail.

So far, Democrats appear to be opposed.

“The president said that privatizing the system would enable Americans to travel ‘more quickly, reliably and affordably,’ although there is no conclusive evidence that such a move would lead to this result,” said transportation committee member Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, in a statement. “I do not believe that giving the airlines control of the system from which they will benefit economically, complete with the power to institute higher fees and taxes, is the answer.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also noted previous Republican opposition to the plan.

“Trump’s ideas for privatizing air traffic control — which recycle a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected — would hand control of one of our nation’s most important assets to special interests and the big airlines,” she said.

A Florida Republican on the transportation committee, freshman Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, said through a spokesperson he supports the privatization effort.

American Airlines, one of Miami-Dade’s largest employers, is a major supporter of privatization and is spending millions to lobby Congress through an industry trade association dubbed Airlines for America.

“The President’s leadership means that we can look forward to legislation that gets government out of the way so we can modernize for the future and maintain our global leadership in aviation,” said Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio in a statement. “Today’s White House announcement puts consumers first — ahead of the status quo.”

Unions representing air traffic controllers and pilots also back the privatization plan.

The privatization speech by the president was billed as a start to “infrastructure week,” a package of public appearances and speeches intended to highlight the White House’s desire to revamp the nation’s roads, bridges and waterways.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of mayors and governors will convene at the White House to talk about infrastructure, although Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado will not be attending.

Trump proposed $200 billion in direct federal spending over the next decade in his recent budget proposal, but it lacks details on how the money will be spent.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty