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Spokane airport opposes privatizing air traffic control

June 5, 2017 Updated Mon., June 5, 2017 at 8 p.m.

The Spokane airport tower is now named after Ray Daves, veteran air traffic controller and Pearl Harbor survivor, and a dedication was held Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, at the Spokane International Airport. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane airport tower is now named after Ray Daves, veteran air traffic controller and Pearl Harbor survivor, and a dedication was held Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, at the Spokane International Airport. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

President Donald Trump on Monday formally endorsed privatization of the nation’s air traffic control system, a proposal met with skepticism in many quarters, including Spokane.

Trump said turning over air traffic control to a nonprofit corporation would increase safety and reduce wait times for passengers.

CEO Larry Krauter at Spokane International Airport re-emphasized opposition to the plan, saying it could compromise passenger safety and increase travel fees. The U.S. has the largest and most complex air traffic system in the world, and turning it over to a nonprofit corporation does not make sense, he said.

“This is an inherently public function,” Krauter said.

The proposal is a concept that is “woefully short on details,” he said.

User fees could be charged to passengers under the proposal. “What is the charging scheme?” Krauter said.

He said the amount of congressional study of the proposal has been limited and it needs a more thorough review.

“All we get are platitudes,” he said.

Medium-size airports such as Spokane could be vulnerable to staff cuts, including elimination of an overnight shift and contracted weather observers.

The airport board that oversees Spokane’s two airports has come out against the proposal. Krauter has made sure the state’s congressional delegation is aware of the airport board’s opposition, he said.

“This is not something that is in the best interests of citizens in this (congressional) district,” Krauter said.

The FAA collects taxes on aircraft fuel, plus excise taxes, to pay for air traffic control and other services.

In dismissing the current system as an anachronism, Trump said the air traffic control operations needed to be separated from the Federal Aviation Administration, an approach that U.S. airlines have long championed. But opponents worry that the plan, which would require congressional approval, will give too much power to the airline industries.

Krauter has said that airlines have been overbooking seats, ordering passengers off planes and raising various fees. They should not be given a governing voice in air traffic control, he said.

Trump said, “We live in a modern age yet our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past.”

The businessman-turned-president’s push to privatize the system came as the airline industry and regulators have managed an extensive period of safety in the skies – there hasn’t been a fatal crash of a domestic airliner in the U.S. in eight years.

Trump chose to make the case to privatize the system at the start of a week focused on repairing the nation’s infrastructure of roads, bridges and airports. But his message was overshadowed by his earlier commentary on Twitter, in which he assailed the mayor of London after the city’s terror attack and criticized his own Justice Department’s handling of his proposed travel ban.

There are about 50,000 airline and other aircraft flights a day in the United States. Both sides of the privatization debate say the system is among the most complex and safest in the world. Even under a congressional privatization plan, the FAA would continue to provide safety oversight of the system.

Winning congressional approval could still be an uphill battle for Trump. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the plan was likely to raise costs for consumers and hurt small airports. “All but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt by this proposal,” Moran said.

The current FAA fiscal authorization expires at the end of September.

Democrats have largely opposed the changes, warning that airline interests would dominate the proposed board, overseeing an estimated 300 air traffic facilities and around 30,000 employees.

Democrats have also pointed to the unprecedented safety under the current system and noted repeated computer system failures in recent years by U.S. airlines, questioning whether they are ready to handle complex technology modernizations.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California pointed to past opposition from both parties to privatization plans, saying it would “hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines.”

Business aircraft operators, private pilots and non-hub airports have also expressed concerns they may pay more and receive less service under a private corporation.

U.S. airlines have lobbied to separate air traffic control from the FAA for two decades and Trump’s budget plan released earlier this year called for the changes, placing air traffic operations under an “independent, non-governmental organization.”

White House officials said the new entity would be overseen by a 13-member board that will include members from the airline industry, unions, general aviation, one airport representative and other stakeholders.

“It’s too broad of an interest to be represented by one seat,” Krauter said of the proposal to give one seat to an airport representative.

Airlines contend the FAA’s NextGen program to modernize the air traffic system is taking too long and has produced too few benefits. The changes would involve moving from the current system, based on radar and voice communications, to one based on satellite navigation and digital communications.

“The president’s leadership means that we can look forward to legislation that gets government out of the way so we can modernize for the future and maintain our global leadership in aviation,” said Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, which represents American, United, Southwest and others.

“The White House plan to privatize the air traffic control system would give control over this infrastructure to private stakeholders and the commercial airlines, directly harming consumers and smaller communities who are already at the mercy of a large airline-conglomerate that leaves them with fewer choices, terrible and degrading treatment on flights, and a stream of constant delays and travel headaches that are the airlines own fault,” said Selena Shilad, Executive Director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America.

“Any plan to reform air traffic control must address the significant infrastructure needs of airports,” said President and CEO Kevin M. Burke, of Airports Council International-North America.

“We cannot modernize one aspect of our aviation system and settle for the status quo for another, especially the foundation on which our aviation system is built,” he said in a news release.

The Millions of Jobs progressive coalition issued a news release Monday that said, “Donald Trump wants to sell off our roads, bridges, and other public assets to foreign corporations and his Wall Street billionaire friends – allowing them to hit Americans with new tolls and put our money in their pockets. Privatizing air traffic controllers – paid for by hiking user fees on American consumers – is just the first step in this direction.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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