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Congressman Al Lawson

Representing the 5th District of Florida

WJXT: Trump's plan to privatize air traffic control gets mixed reaction

June 5, 2017
In The News

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - President Donald Trump's plan to to shift responsibility for the air traffic control system from the government to a private, nonprofit corporation run by airlines and other aviation interests has received mixed reaction from locals in aviation.

The president said Monday that separating air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration would make American travelers happier -- improving efficiency and saving money.

"We are taking the first important step to clearing the runway for more jobs, lower prices and much, much, much better transportation," Trump said. "The current system cannot keep up, hasn't been able to keep up for many years."

The U.S. air traffic control system, the world's largest and most complex, is in the midst of an era of unsurpassed safety. There has not been a fatal crash of a domestic passenger airliner in the U.S. in eight years.

The handover of about 300 airport towers and other flight tracking centers would be one of the largest transfers of U.S. government assets. About 35,000 workers, including 14,000 controllers and 6,000 technicians, would be affected.

News4Jax spoke off-camera with a former air traffic controller who has been in the business for 20 years and spent much of his career at Jacksonville International Airport. He said the government standards aren't where they used be, and people have no idea how many mistakes are made on a daily basis.

Privatization supporters, including some Republican lawmakers, say it would improve efficiency and modernize the air-traffic system. But Congressional approval isn't certain. Some lawmakers in both parties are reluctant to give up oversight. Some politically influential business aircraft operators, private pilots, small aircraft manufacturers and medium- and small-sized airports fear airlines will dominate the corporation's board, resulting in higher fees for them and less service.

There are also concerns about whether the air traffic system would suffer during the transition.

Aviation attorney and pilot Ed Booth also aired his concerns about the plan to News4Jax.

"I think it's doable, but I'm not sure what certain advantages it offers," Booth said.

Booth said the FAA's system is very safe, and the agency has spent billions updating its technology. He added that a number of smaller airports already use private contractors to run their towers.

"What I would have liked to have heard is improvements at the airports themselves in terms of hard infrastructure," Booth said. "More runways, better terminals, better screening procedures."

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Florida, told News4Jax by phone that the president's plan is a bad idea, and he wants to see it grounded.

"Traffic controllers have been doing a great job keeping us safe in the air," Lawson said. "We don't want to jeopardize with a private group coming back and causing the problems that would jeopardize our safety."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FAA, issued the following statement in response to the administration’s plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system:

“The safety of the flying public should not be for sale. 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.”

In a statement sent to News4Jax, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi wrote, “NATCA shares the Administration’s commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System (NAS) with a stable, predictable funding stream. We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control (ATC) reform legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our Union’s principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce."

Rinaldi also said the union opposes a for-profit system.

Of Jacksonville's seven airports, only Jacksonville International Airport is controlled by FAA controllers.

There is a large facility in Hilliard, where FAA controllers oversee flights from all across the country. The president did not mention specifically what could happen there.