President Donald Trump said Monday that the nation's air traffic control system needed a modern makeover and urged Congress to approve a privatization plan that he said would increase safety and reduce wait times for passengers.
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.
"We live in a modern age yet our air traffic control system is stuck, painfully, in the past," Trump said, noting the FAA had been working to upgrade the system for years. "But after billions and billions of tax dollars spent and the many years of delays, we're still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn't work."
Trump added with a touch of humor, "Other than that, it's quite good."
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 one of 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.
As he pushed for the changes, Trump was flanked by three former U.S. transportation secretaries who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: Elizabeth Dole, James Burnley and Mary Peters.
The president's team invited several Republican members of Congress, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, airline industry executives, union members and others to the event in the East Room.
Creating the impression of a bill signing, Trump was surrounded by the lawmakers after his remarks as he signed a decision memo and a letter to Congress outlining his principles for the air traffic control plan.
But 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.
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, airports and other stakeholders.
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.