President Trump’s support for a plan to lop more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers from the federal payroll gives fresh momentum to an effort that stalled in Congress last year.
The proposal is included in Trump’s 2018 budget, which would cut funding for the Transportation Department by 13 percent.
The move would address two themes at the core of White House strategy: contracting the size of the federal workforce and putting a costly federal program in private hands.
The more than 30,000 federal workers comprise 14,000 air traffic controllers and about 16,000 other FAA employees, many of whom work on a project called NextGen. The NextGen program is a combination of several projects intended to speed air travel, save airline fuel and accommodate a 20 percent increase in passengers in the next two decades.
Congress has become increasingly frustrated by the pace at which the FAA has progressed and by regular criticism of NextGen in reports from the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. A House committee last year voted to spin off the controllers and the NextGen program into a federally chartered nonprofit organization run by a board of directors. The bill was never called up on the House floor, perhaps because Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) knew there was strong bipartisan opposition in the Senate.
Now, the White House has endorsed a transfer to that “nongovernmental organization” as a “benefit to the flying public and taxpayers overall.”
The issue has divided the airline industry, won surprising union support for leaving the federal workforce and drawn comparisons with other nations that have privatized their air traffic control networks. If it wins congressional support this year, the FAA would lose more than 65 percent of its workers and be reduced to the role of a regulatory oversight agency, much like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issues auto regulations and recalls faulty vehicles.
“For too long, the federal government has been the impediment in updating our [air traffic control] operation to a world-class, state-of-the-art system,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), applauding Trump’s proposal. “Like any transformative change in Washington, entrenched interest groups will do and say anything to protect their parochial interests. But the facts are not on their side.”
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), a committee member, said the proposal was included in Trump’s budget “as a political favor to the chairman, who was an early [Trump] supporter.”
“The chairman will have the same problem he did last time,” DeFazio said. “If Trump wants to actually put forward a proposal along these lines, he’s going to have to put a lot of personal juice behind it. And then you get to the Senate, and they have pretty much said, ‘We are not interested in this.’ ”
That belief was echoed by Senate Commerce Committee member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
“Scrapping our nation’s air traffic control system is an idea that died in the Senate last year, and it’ll die again this year — with or without the administration’s support,” Nelson said.
About a dozen years ago, the FAA was looking for a catchy descriptor for its multifaceted program to modernize a system that had undergone minimal enhancements since radar’s introduction during World War II, one in which commercial jetliners still move around the country from one designated way point to the next, rather than flying in a straight line to their destination.
The point was to sell Congress on funding several expensive projects, and the name they came up with to cover all of them was NextGen.
Giving multiple programs one name has been a blessing and a curse. It gave the FAA a single name to use when it sought modernization money from Congress. But it also gave Congress a single program to hold accountable when elements of NextGen moved slowly or not at all.
With the FAA’s current authorization set to expire on Sept. 30, the White House and Shuster have a ready vehicle in the reauthorization bill to convey the privatization plan.
The FAA already has spent about $7 billion on elements of the NextGen program and estimates a total cost of $35.8 billion, split between federal taxpayers and the airlines, which will have to install new equipment on their planes. But some airlines have been reluctant to invest, perceiving the FAA as moving slowly and subject to uncertain funding and occasional government shutdowns.
That led to a split in the industry last year, when Delta broke away from the trade group Airlines for America, which supported the privatization plan. Delta rebelled, issuing a white paper that said “no evidence has yet been produced to show that privatization would reduce costs.”
The other major airlines say that privatization will infuse the NextGen program with a level of certainty that will give them confidence to make the required capital investments.
Details of the Trump proposal were not available Thursday, but if the White House follows last year’s Shuster plan, funding for the nonprofit corporation would come from charges and fees imposed on passenger and cargo airlines, exempting military aircraft and the general aviation community.
Shuster and advocates for moving the controllers and NextGen to a nonprofit corporation have studied several foreign systems where such a transfer has been achieved, most notably the Canadian system, which was transferred to a nonprofit 20 years ago.
Critics of a the U.S. transfer proposal point out that the Canadian system is far less complex and heavily used as the U.S. system.
A surprising turn in Shuster’s push for the formation of the nonprofit corporation came a year ago, when the controllers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, supported the move to separate its members from the federal payroll.
The union’s president, Paul Rinaldi, cited the 2013 sequestration, government shutdowns and the lack of funding to hire new controllers in testimony before Shuster’s committee.
“Unfortunately, we no longer have a stable, predictable funding stream, and this uncertainty has caused serious problems in the system,” Rinaldi testified. “We have experienced 24 short-term extensions of authorization, a partial shutdown of the FAA, a complete government shutdown and numerous threats of government shutdowns.”
Rinaldi laid out terms that he said his members found acceptable — ensuring “that our employees are fully protected in our employment relationship” and “maintaining our members’ pay benefits, retirement, health care, along with our negotiated agreements for our work rules.”
“NATCA supports this bill because it provides a stable, predictable funding stream,” he said. “A not-for-profit, independent organization run by the board of stakeholders could deliver results similar to those we have seen in Canada.”