Reps. Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry visited President Donald Trump at the White House recently to help tout his plan to privatize key portions of the nation’s aviation system – a plan that instantly faces turbulence on Capitol Hill and in key 2018 congressional campaigns.
Against the proposal is a bipartisan chorus of critics who contend it will hurt America’s rural communities, areas whose voters helped propel Trump into office. But the plan has also drawn strong support from lawmakers with big airports that serve as important engines of economic development.
Meadows and McHenry are from a state with both types of airports, and other lawmakers are similarly torn. Lawmakers from states such as Missouri, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and others due for intensely competitive congressional races next year will find themselves caught between some of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists and industries and small town mayors and passengers rights groups.
Meadows, head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and McHenry, a House deputy whip, believe that Trump’s plan to privatize such Federal Aviation Administration functions as air traffic control will benefit all areas by creating a faster, more efficient system that can focus on equipment modernization. They see it as a boon for booming airports such as Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
But they acknowledge that Trump’s plan, like previous privatization proposals, will meet strong headwinds from some colleagues as well as small airport operators who argue that the shift to a self-funded system could curtail service in rural areas.
Local officials have expressed their displeasure even before Trump’s formal privatization pitch last week. In March, 115 mayors signed a letter to congressional lawmakers urging them to “reject any risky plans to privatize our air traffic control system.” The mayors of Monroe and Concord, N.C., Wichita, Kansas,and Florence and Mount Pleasant, S.C., were among the signatories.
McHenry, R-N.C., said he understood. "It’s like any other ambitious piece of legislation – it’s going to be hard-fought," he said. "You have certain lawmakers opposed to it, we’re still working through that. A number of them want to maintain that power out of Congress. I think it is better that we utilized private sector dollars to make our skies more efficient."
Meadows, R-N.C., described Trump’s plan as a work in progress. He left the White House meeting last week "cautiously optimistic" that the plan can be tailored to work for major fields like Charlotte’s – the nation’s fifth busiest airport in terms of takeoffs and landings in 2015 – and smaller ones such as Asheville Regional Airport in his district.
"We’re supportive of the idea as long as we can work out the details," said Meadows, whose swing state voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton 49.8 to 46.2 percent. "How do we make sure that they (rural airports) are protected in this."
Trump last week reaffirmed his support for a plan to transfer air traffic control responsibilities from the FAA to a self-financing, non-profit corporation. Free of government bureaucracy, the new aviation system will provide passengers with "cheaper, faster and safer travel," Trump said at a White House ceremony.
The privatization plan has the support of the major airlines, the air traffic controllers union and former U.S. transportation secretaries, citing what they consider the FAA’s glacial pace in modernizing its technology.
But several lawmakers, including some key Republicans, and consumer advocates argue that Congress would cede its watchdog responsibility with the shift and hand key components of the U.S. aviation system over to airlines that might place profit over consumer concerns.
"President Trump’s proposal to privatize the air traffic control system…would represent an unprecedented giveaway of taxpayer-funded assets to an untested private entity," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations transportation subcommittee.
The administration got an earful about the privatization plan when Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified on Capitol Hill last week. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told her that the plan is a "tough sell" in a state the Trump soundly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton 57.9 to 40.1 percent.
"The small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them," he told Chao. "I think you’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle. So the sale needs to be made and needs to be made convincingly."
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, told Chao at the hearing that he’s concerned that rural aviation issues wouldn’t be a priority for the proposed non-profit corporation. Kansas was overwhelmingly Trump country last year.
"I think one of the problems with privatization is the removal of Congress from having a role to play," Moran said. "And so I would put my eggs in the basket of asking Congress to be supportive of rural programs much more readily than I would put my eggs in the basket of a 13-member private board."
Chao defended the plan, telling a House Transportation Committee hearing that the system “can’t be any worse than it is now.”
“Whenever there is a budgetary concern, the rural areas are always the first to get cut,” she said. “The towers are always the first to be eliminated. We've seen that, with sequestration.”
McHenry, in an interview, said the privatization proposal wouldn’t take Congress out of the equation.
"What we’re doing is creating a co-op…it’s an asset that would still be owned by the government," McHenry said. "In essence, we’re letting a not-for-profit lease these assets."
Though supportive of Trump’s privatization effort, Meadows said he won’t vote in favor of it unless Lew Bleiweis, the executive director of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, signs off on it.
"I’ve had about a half-dozen meetings with him," Meadows said. "His biggest thing is how to improve rural facilities, not just Asheville, but Wilmington, Hickory, a number of them."
The Tar Heel state has 72 publicly-owned and operated airports, 11 of which provide air carrier service. The other 61 are general aviation facilities that cater to private and corporate flight, according to the state’s airports association.
Bleiweis couldn’t be reached for comment Monday but officials from the Asheville airport authority said the organization hasn’t taken a position on Trump’s proposal. Neither has North Carolina Airports Association.
McClatchy’s Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this story.