In August 1981, President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire 13,000 air traffic controllers who participated in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike for raises, shorter workweeks, and better working conditions.
This is not surprising coming from the president whose first inaugural speech called government “the problem.”
Since then, Republicans have been on a quixotic crusade to privatize America’s common infrastructure to placate their billionaire donors and lobbyists.
Now President Donald Trump is following in Reagan’s footsteps after announcing Monday a plan to revoke responsibility of tracking and guiding airplanes from the Federal Aviation Commission (FAA) in favor of handing it off to private vendors.
His justification? Trump called the current air traffic control system:
“Stuck, painfully, in the past…ancient, broken, antiquated…horrible.”
He claims reforms would make air travel safer and more reliable, and that it is taking the FAA too long to upgrade its systems.
“Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. A total waste of money.”
Commercial airlines see the president’s move as a win, and executives from several companies joined the president at the White House Monday to announce the plan.
In the past, House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) proposed creating private, nonprofit corporations to operate, manage, and control air traffic, like in Canada. Under his proposal, the FAA would still have some oversight, but a board comprised of mainly representatives of major commercial airlines would govern.
Since the FAA would still play a role, the air traffic controllers’ union has been generally supportive of Shuster’s proposal.
Some groups, though, criticize privatization efforts, claiming airlines would possess too much control over the system for their own benefit.
The group Flyers’ Rights calls the plan:
“[The] creation of an airline controlled corporate monopoly… handing the airlines (for free) control over a core public asset, and providing them nearly unbridled power to extract new fees and increased taxes from passengers.”
In the Public Interest published ten reasons against privatization of air traffic control. Among those reasons is the fear that as more airlines consolidate, they become increasingly anti-competitive.
Another concern is how customers have been treated. An example of this occurred in April when Dr. David Dao was literally dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to give up his seat to United crew members in what United CEO Oscar Munoz admitted to be a “mistake of epic proportions.”
There is also the question of how airlines intend to use their profits.
According to Quartz, airlines average one major technical glitch per month, and refuse to invest in updating their technology. An industry analyst even said one major airline is operating a thirty-five-year old reservation system.
According to a former Department of Homeland Security official:
“The same airlines that can’t make their reservations systems work are pushing to manage an air traffic control system with 800 million flights a year, spanning thousands of airports…This begs the broader question of whether major decisions regarding the safety and security of the flying American public should rest in the hands of a private corporation—especially a corporation that would be controlled by the airlines, which have a track record of under-investing in their IT systems.”
Then there is the question of who stands to benefit most from privatization.
According to In the Public Interest:
“The privatization proposal is a corporate takeover, giving away perks, board seats, and power to already powerful interests, while decreasing congressional oversight that ensures decisions benefit the public. That is why local elected officials, consumer organizations such as the National Consumers League, rural and agricultural groups such as the National Grange and USA Rice Federation, and free market groups such as Center For Individual Freedom all oppose this proposal.”
This might also coincide with President Trump’s personal interest. He has criticized the FAA in the past, stating his personal pilot has complained about how obsolete and inefficient it is.
This current plan will likely be included in legislation reauthorizing the FAA. On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee will discuss with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is supposed to address it again Thursday before the House Transportation Committee.
The FAA plan is part of Trump’s broader infrastructure vision in what the White House is calling the president’s “infrastructure week.”
Featured image from ATC Memes.