President Trump spent Monday touting his plan to privatize the air traffic control system. I don’t really have a considered opinion on the merits of this. Both private and government-run systems are used elsewhere in the world, and they seem to work about equally well.
However, we should be clear on exactly what the motivation for this move is. It’s true that our current air traffic control system is outdated, and the FAA has been working for years on an upgraded, GPS-based system called NextGen. So what’s the problem? It’s not the technology, it’s the funding. Big airlines want a better air traffic control system, but they’re unhappy that congressional funding is so unreliable. They want the upgrade to receive proper funding so it can get up and running quickly.
You probably know what’s coming next. Republicans in Congress are the roadblock here, because they’re ideologically opposed to raising taxes or fees to fully fund the upgrade. So big airlines want control turned over to a private corporation that would have the authority to raise fees itself. For big airlines, the benefit is that they get the funding they want plus more control over the system. For Republicans, the benefit is that the upgrade gets funded, but without any GOP fingerprints on the tax increase. That’s what this is all about.
POSTSCRIPT: So what might stop Trump’s proposal? Well, a private corporation run by big airlines would almost certainly favor the interests of big city airports. Smaller airports in mid-size cities would likely get the shaft. So senators in states that lack big cities might decide that having a neutral FAA running things is a better bet after all.