Defense secretary backs plan to spin off air traffic control

Defense secretary backs plan to spin off air traffic control
© Greg Nash

Proponents of separating air traffic control from the federal government have picked up a new supporter: the Department of Defense (DOD).

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a recent letter to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainScience group seeks to draft Mark Kelly for 2020 Arizona Senate race Trump is right: Walls work on the southern border How news media omissions distort Russia probe narrative ... and shield Democrats MORE (R-Ariz.) that the department is “supportive of a possible privatization of ATC services and recognizes the potential risks.”

Mattis said DOD has formed an ad hoc committee to assess the agency’s relationship with air traffic control, delineate any linkages that would be necessary and “ensure privatization efforts going forward preserve our national security interests.”


The support from Mattis removes one major hurdle for proponents of the spin-off plan, as critics have long cited national security concerns from the defense community as a major reason for opposing the idea.

“It’s a huge deal,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters. “You have senators running around saying that’s one of the reasons not to do it. And Secretary Mattis is saying we support it.”

But the spin-off proposal, which President Trump voiced support for in his budget blueprint, has long been divisive on Capitol Hill and is still likely to face an uphill battle in Congress.

Efforts to advance the idea in a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stalled on the House floor last year.

And lawmakers continued to clash over the contentious policy proposal during a heated hearing on the issue Wednesday.

The plan — a top priority for most of the nation’s major airlines — would transfer air traffic control operations from the FAA to a nonprofit or non-governmental agency.

The corporation, which would have a board appointed by users of the system, would raise money through user fees and the private sector. The spinoff model would also remove 30,000 FAA employees from the federal payroll, where workers are subject to salary caps.

While the FAA would still maintain safety oversight and regulate the national airspace, the plan would represent a dramatic shift in how the country manages its air traffic control operations.

Supporters say it’s necessary to speed up long-stalled modernization efforts and to avoid the financial and political uncertainty of the annual appropriations process. Shuster showed off stacks of paper strips at the hearing to demonstrate how air traffic controllers track flights.

“The fact is, the FAA’s infrastructure is increasingly obsolete, and its technology is still cemented in the last century,” Shuster said at the hearing. “As a result, shocking amounts of tax dollars and time have been wasted over the last 35 years.”

But many Democrats and GOP tax writers and appropriators have major reservations about the spin-off idea.

Their chief concern is handing over the power to collect fees to a nongovernmental agency and removing operations from congressional oversight.

Critics also fear that the spin-off model would give major airlines outsize power over air traffic control operations.

“Who is not testifying today? The airline CEOs,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the panel. “Perhaps they recognize that the American people are not interested in giving more control to the airlines when, between dragging a passenger off a plane and massive computer failures, they can't even get their own houses in order.”