Why the President Walked Away From Air Traffic Control Reform This Year

Air Traffic Control Reform News (yes, that’s a thing) wrote a post-mortem explaining why legislation to spin the country’s air traffic control system into a separate non-profit didn’t advance this year.

Transportation committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Airlines for America) gave up on reform at the end of February. Just weeks before “word had been passed quietly to supporters that Shuster finally believed he had enough votes to bring the FAA reauthorization bill (which included the ATC corporation section) to the House floor the week of March 12th” yet the idea quickly died.

  • As recently as January 11 the President made a strong statement about the need to reform air traffic control, and indicated this would proceed separate from his proposed infrastructure bill. “Sources say” Trump again brought up air traffic control reform at the Republican Congressional Retreat at the Greenbrier which was held January 31 – February 2. At that point it was expected to be included in the infrastructure bill.

  • The President committed to pressure Congressional Republicans to support it at that time.

  • In early February “Transportation Committee staffers had informed supporters that the vote was now planned for the second full week of March.”

  • However in mid-February the White House released its infrastructure bill outline and it didn’t include air traffic control.

  • In late February “the White House had notified Shuster’s office that the President would not be making calls and twisting arms after all.” The whip count in the House came up short. Since he was going to lose the vote, Shuster pulled the legislation.

Copyright: cylonphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

According to Bob Poole, the President walked away from air traffic control reform, and he blames success of the campaign which claimed that,

the bill would turn over the ATC system to “the big airlines” and shift resources away from the smaller airports that bizjets and small private planes depend on.

In particular he calls out Delta’s claims against spinoff prior to that airline’s switching sides in favor of spinoff as having been crucial to the success of that campaign.

While not itself a panacea, separating out regulation of air traffic control from actually carrying out its function is a key recommendation of IATA, and the FAA’s government-run air traffic control organization has failed to upgrade its technology. US air traffic control is antiquated, leads to delays and fewer flights, and is one of the reasons flights take longer than they did 20 years ago. The US is clearly behind much of the world including Canada in this area.

We still largely use radar rather than GPS, voice rather than digital communication, and actually continue to use paper flight strips (including changes that are hand written) rather than electronic data to manage traffic flow. So at a minimum an opportunity to do something that could improve air travel across the board was passed on this year.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Air safety clearly isn’t the highest priority. We need people willing to stand up and pay for things, the public is too scared to pay for things. I doubt a prioritized list of strategic projects even exists in the White House.

  2. People think the system works pretty well, and it does, so it’s not a priority. Yes, it could be better, but people see it as an “if it ain’t broke” situation. I do agree that GPS would greatly improve the system as radar is certainly inferior, but apparently there are just more pressing things for the country right now.

  3. @Robert

    Except air safety is actually quite stellar. How can you say it’s clearly not a priority?

  4. Congress could properly fund the FAA and get technological advancements if it wanted to. The thing is, we won’t pay for infrastructure improvements in this country until things are crumbling apart… Or private industry can make money on it.

    The biggest problem we have with ATC isn’t enroute navigation, it’s a shortage of runways.

  5. Gary, have you ever ACTUALLY visited an ATC facility in the US? Maybe you should as you might be quite surprised, or maybe even informed. Maybe try talking to a real Controller and find out why just about everything in the last two paragraphs of this post is flat out wrong.

  6. “Reform” always means privatization when a republican says it. Thank goodness he wasn’t able to do it. You can only trust that reform will lead to improvements if a democrat is the one behind it.

  7. Well, .. I guess Turnip was satisfied after the recent taking the credit for a safe accident free year and went on to the next narcisstic event

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