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White House Reiterates Support for Air Traffic Control Reform

Melanie Zanona reports for The Hill that the White House, which previously indicated its support for spinning off the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization into an independent nongovernmental entity, reiterated its support for transforming the U.S. air traffic control system.

National Economic Council director Gary Cohn said there will also be an emphasis on transformative projects, like modernizing the country's air traffic control system. 

Trump has called for spinning off air traffic control operations from the federal government, though Cohn acknowledged the plan could face opposition from GOP appropriators.

“Air traffic control is probably the single most exciting thing we can do,” Cohn said.

Cohn is absolutely right. His remarks came during a meeting of CEOs at the White House earlier today. It has been reported that Cohn repeatedly praised world-leader Nav Canada, which serves as the model for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s air traffic control overhaul.

This news follows Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s fact-finding mission to Canada last week, where the U.S. delegation toured Nav Canada facilities and met with key Canadian aviation stakeholders. Canada is widely regarded as having the most advanced and efficient air navigation service provider in the world thanks to successful reforms two decades ago that spun off the government air traffic office into an independent nonprofit.

U.S. air traffic control modernization has stalled due to congressional and bureaucratic mismanagement, threatening the ability of the aviation system to cope with growing air traffic in the coming years. The U.S. remains the last major industrialized country in the world to allow its aviation safety regulator to operate the airspace. This massive conflict of interest—the FAA is tasked with regulating itself—has been recognized as dangerous policy by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization since 2001. It’s why much of the rest of the world has separated aviation safety regulatory functions from airspace operations.

Adopting Nav Canada-style reforms in the U.S. ought to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, some Republican congressional appropriators are disinclined to give up their spending authority (the reform proposal would result in the FAA’s budget being slashed by approximately two-thirds) and many Democrats are wary of working with the Trump administration. Making matters worse, some outside conservative groups, such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, have come out against reform because they have misread federal labor law and come to a variety of incorrect conclusions about the proposal.

However, the Shuster plan has enjoyed broad bipartisan support and universal support from pro-market aviation policy experts. Spinning off the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization into an independent nonprofit corporation has been endorsed by former senior officials in the Obama, Goerge W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Reagan administrations. The FAA’s air traffic controller union has backed the plan. Former Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, once the chairman of the Senate Commerce Aviation subcommittee, co-chaired with President Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation Jim Burnley a multiyear effort of aviation stakeholders to develop a transformative air traffic control reform proposal.

The time is now to upgrade our nation’s World War II-era air traffic control technology and practices. Despite what reform foes such as the heavily subsidized corporate jet lobby claim, modernization will never happen without major institutional changes. Nav Canada has shown us the way to finally enter the 21st century for air traffic control. It’s time for members of Congress to set aside their petty differences and get to work on something truly transformative.