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FAA chief defends air traffic control after Trump attack

FAA chief defends air traffic control after Trump attack
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The head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday defended the agency’s program to modernize air traffic control, which President Trump recently called “totally out of whack.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who was appointed by Obama to a five-year term that expires in 2018, said at an annual aviation summit that he agrees with wanting to move faster on the federal program, called NextGen.

But Huerta also pointed out that there has been “tremendous progress” in the ongoing modernization effort.

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“While I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we’d all like to move faster, I also firmly believe that any fair review of the past few years makes clear that our work together has been critical to the success of the tremendous progress we have made to revamp our air traffic system with the latest technologies,” Huerta said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce summit.

“The FAA can demonstrate that it has already delivered more than $2.72 billion in benefits under the NextGen modernization umbrella. We expect that number to climb to $160 billion by 2030.”

Huerta added that Data Comm technology has now been installed in 55 towers nationwide, up from just five in the beginning of last year.

“For those of you keeping score at home, we are now 29 months ahead of schedule and under budget,” he said. “We are planning to use those savings to install Data Comm in an additional seven towers.”

A recent inspector general report found that the FAA has struggled to implement portions of NextGen, which is supposed to establish a precise satellite-based surveillance system and digital data communications for air traffic controllers and pilots.

The industry says the outdated technology system has created frustrating and costly flight delays, while lawmakers pushing to spin off air traffic control from the federal government have seized on the inspector general report to make their case.

In a meeting with airline executives and airport officials earlier this month, Trump slammed the multi-billion dollar modernization effort, saying it’s “way over budget” and “way behind schedule.”

Trump also asked why airline corporations had permitted the government to invest in a system that is "totally out of whack," but Southwest emphasized that airlines are not in control of those decisions.

“I have a pilot who’s a real expert, and he said … [the government] is instituting a massive, multi-billion dollar project, but they’re using the wrong equipment,” Trump said to airline CEOs, airport officials and air cargo carriers. “So let’s find out about that.”

Trump, who owns his own aircraft fleet, suggested that the FAA would be better run by a pilot, and expressed surprise that “the gentleman who’s the head of the FAA right now” is not one.

“He’s not a pilot? I just think a non-pilot would not know the sophistication of this [ATC] system, right?” Trump said.

“I mean, better to have a pilot, because my pilot said it’s a terrible [ATC] system that they’re installing, that the work they’re doing now is a waste of tremendous amounts of money because the system is a bad system.”

In the same meeting, Trump also promised to upgrade the nation’s ailing airports. He has not, however, taken a public stance on whether he supports separating air traffic control from the FAA and handing it over to a non-profit organization.

Huerta acknowledged Thursday that now is the “right time to be asking critical questions” about how air traffic control operations are structured.

“Along with my FAA colleagues, I am eager to engage in a full and honest review of the path we have traveled with many of you in this room to modernize the air traffic management system,” he said.