PRESIDENT TRUMP held a photo op Monday to restate his support for radical reform of the nation’s air traffic control system, which he had mentioned in his “skinny budget” proposal three months ago. Brand-new or not, critics of the plan denounced “privatizing” this vital service. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) released a statement accusing Mr. Trump of recycling “a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected” and would “hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines.”
Perhaps it would help to point out that spinning the air traffic control system off from the Federal Aviation Administration to a new nonprofit corporation is not actually Mr. Trump’s idea. As a matter of fact, it’s not even a “Republican plan,” strictly speaking. Yes, the current iteration is mostly the product of legislative efforts by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). But the idea has a bipartisan pedigree going back a quarter-century to the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton. Then-Vice President Al Gore’s 1993 government-reinvention project, the National Performance Review, recommended creating a government-owned air traffic control corporation supported by user fees and governed by stakeholders.
Except for the precise ownership structure, that’s essentially what Mr. Shuster’s bill proposes. Like Mr. Gore’s version, it would retain a robust safety regulation role for the FAA; whether nominally public or private, the main advantage of a separate, self-governing nonprofit entity is to end the constant political bickering in Congress over the FAA’s budget, thus freeing the entity to pursue much-needed technological modernization without worrying about government shutdowns and other hassles.
Mr. Trump’s embrace of the Shuster plan also represents a rare and welcome, if implicit, departure from his bluster about “America First.” As a matter of fact, it would be a case of America Last — basically an imitation of reforms Canada and Europe have already adopted, with considerable success. To depict this adaptation to international norms as a giveaway to special interests is especially inappropriate given that the fiercest opponents are the business and general aviation lobbies — i.e., corporate jet and private plane operators. They fear being forced to pay higher fees for less airspace access in a new dispensation where they would have a seat on the new entity’s board of directors, but where access to Congress wouldn’t count.
Notably, the air-traffic controllers’ union has thrown its support behind Mr. Shuster’s bill. True, major airlines might have the most clout in the new entity. But is that really so terrible? It is the airlines — not private planes and their disproportionately well-to-do users and owners — that are responsible for moving the millions and millions of ordinary people who fly each day. It’s true, as Ms. Pelosi said, that air traffic control reform has failed repeatedly on Capitol Hill; that is a comment on the lobbying clout of the opponents, not the intrinsic merits of the idea, which are considerable even if Mr. Trump says so, too.
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