Making ATC Great Again
For better or worse, recent US presidents paid scant attention to commercial aviation unless a crisis erupted. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the waning days of their administrations, expressed a passing interest in US airline customer service. Bush, in a farewell event at the US Department of Transportation (DOT) at the end of his presidency, joked he had not “waited for an airplane or had my bags lost” for eight years.
But new US President Donald Trump is an “aviation aficionado,” said Airports Council International-North America president and CEO Kevin Burke, who participated in a high-profile White House meeting Trump held with US airline CEOs and airport directors in early February.
“You’re going to be so happy with Trump,” Trump told the aviation executives during the meeting, promising that he will stay engaged in aviation issues. “I want to be able to do things for you … Airports are very important to me. Travel is very important to me … Our airports used to be the best. Now they’re at the bottom of the rung.”
Trump told airport directors at the meeting to visit airports in Singapore and Dubai, which are examples of what he wants to see in the US, according to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) aviation director Bill Vanecek, who attended the White House meeting.
The Dubai government, of course, has spent $32 billion on the emirate’s new, state-of-the-art airport. When meeting participants asked Trump where the money will come from to revamp US airports, the president responded, according to a partial transcript of the meeting issued by the White House, “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll be able to get the money.”
Trump took aim at FAA’s ATC modernization program, known as NextGen. “I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars [and] it’s a system that’s totally out of whack,” he said. Again without specifying details or funding sources, he promised to remake the US ATC system.
“The president was very keen” on ATC modernization, Burke told reporters in a conference call after the meeting. “He was very engaged on air traffic control.”
Rob Wigington, the president and CEO of Nashville (Tennessee) International Airport and another meeting participant, said Trump asked those in the room, “What would it take to make our air traffic control system great and how much would it cost?”
During the meeting, Trump appeared surprised to learn that FAA administrator Michael Huerta, who was not at the meeting, is not a pilot and said it would be better to have a pilot running FAA.
But Huerta, who became FAA administrator with a five-year term in January 2013, is widely credited with steadying NextGen and achieving some significant ATC modernization goals after the cost overruns and delays faced by the program in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
“At first blush, it’s very flattering for [Trump] to say that” the FAA administrator should be a pilot, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) president Tim Canoll, who was not at the White House meeting, told ATW. But “we don’t view [being a pilot] as a prerequisite. Administrator Huerta has done a great job. His ability to navigate some very tricky issues and keep us primarily focused on safety [has been admirable].”
Canoll said there have been several NextGen accomplishments under Huerta, including redesigning flight paths over big metropolitan areas, that have “increased capacity at airports and increased safety.” The problem with NextGen, Canoll believes, is that it was initially sold as the installation of a new ATC system to which FAA would cut over at some point.
“We need to shift our thinking on NextGen,” Canoll explained. “Instead of an event, it’s more of an evolutionary process … It’s a complex process. It’s not something you can turn on overnight … There is no other system in the world as unique and as complex and as large as the US air traffic control system … Especially under Huerta’s leadership … it gets better every year.”
Southwest Airlines chairman and CEO Gary Kelly was among those at the White House meeting pushing Trump to embrace separating ATC from FAA and creating a new entity to manage air traffic in the US. Because NextGen has taken so long, much of the program’s technology is “already outdated, no question,” Kelly told Trump, adding, “We need to address the fundamental organization of the air traffic organization, not the safety and regulatory oversight—that’s a government function that needs to remain.”
Kelly told Trump reforming FAA “by creating a not-for-profit corporation” to manage ATC is the best way forward. But he also suggested building on NextGen rather than starting all over. “We don’t have to scrap everything,” Kelly told Trump.
With FAA needing to be reauthorized by Sept. 30, Congress is likely to again take up a proposal to separate ATC from FAA. The Obama administration remained neutral on the issue. Trump does not appear likely to stay neutral on this or any other issue, and he has invited the airline CEOs and airport directors back to the White House for another meeting in April or May.
When told by a meeting participant that past efforts to reform the ATC structure had been tripped up by politics, Trump interjected, “Not anymore it’s not political.” He promised ATC reform “at a reasonable price.”
As Burke said after the meeting, “The devil is in the details.”