President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy transportation secretary once represented a major airline lobby, a group that is now pushing the Trump administration to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system.
Last week, Trump nominated Jeffrey Rosen, a Washington lawyer and former George W. Bush administration official, to run the day-to-day operations of the Transportation Department. Rosen’s position requires Senate approval.
If confirmed, Rosen could use his position to throw the Department of Transportation’s weight behind putting the air traffic control system into a private nonprofit. The proposed change is controversial, with major commercial airlines arguing the overhaul will make flying more efficient and save fuel while those opposed argue that it will result in higher prices for customers and in the major airlines controlling the implementation of a new air traffic control system.
The Pentagon has raised serious questions as well, since the Department of Defense shares infrastructure with civilian air traffic control systems.
In 2013, Rosen worked as counsel for Airlines for America, a group that is spending millions on Capitol Hill to push for taking air traffic control out of the government’s hands and into a private nonprofit with government oversight.
Consultants and strategic advisers must by law be registered if they spend at least 20 percent of their time working to influence the federal government, but in recent years many people have chosen not to register and fallen into a category known as “shadow lobbying.”
The organization says Rosen’s work wasn’t to influence government policy.
“Mr. Rosen didn’t lobby on behalf of A4A,” said Airlines for America spokesman Vaughan Jennings. “He and his firm did perform legal services back in 2013.”
Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington on the campaign trail, has hired dozens of lobbyists for lower-level positions in his administration in recent weeks. A White House spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
Rosen’s name appears on a 2013 petition from major airline trade groups to the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation, when the trade groups were protesting planned cuts to air traffic controllers. Rosen also did work on behalf of the Cargo Airline Association in 2015.
Rosen, who currently works at Kirkland Ellis, a corporate law firm that also lobbies the federal government, did not return a request for comment.
A small group of senators, including Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have opposed privatizing air traffic control and could derail Rosen’s nomination process through delay tactics or outright “no” votes.
“Sen. Nelson has long opposed ATC privatization, and also he has made it known this year he plans to do the same,” said Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley. “How it might affect his vote when this nomination comes before the committee is to be determined. This is something he will quiz him on and could cause him to vote against him.”
Moran’s office declined to comment.
Newly appointed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has not taken a position on the proposal to privatize air traffic control.
Rosen, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors in 2016 but was never confirmed, has a long career in transportation law. He served as general counsel for the Department of Transportation from 2003 to 2006 before moving on to the Office of Management and Budget as general counsel and senior policy adviser.
Airlines for America is one of Washington’s biggest lobbying players, and its members include American Airlines, Southwest and United. In 2013, when Rosen did legal work for the group, it spent nearly $8 million in lobbying, according to Senate records. In 2016, Airlines for America spent $6.4 million in lobbying, and paid $350,000 to a law firm where former Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., now work.
Ironically, if Airlines for America gets its way and privatizes the air traffic control system, people who fly in private jets, like Trump frequently did before entering office, will face higher fees at U.S. airports.
The major airlines want to quickly implement NextGen, a long-term project to replace ground-based radar technology with GPS systems that can move planes closer together in the sky.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that it will cost the federal government and the airline industry $35.8 billion to complete the system by 2030. The airlines think a nonprofit with government oversight can make it happen faster.
“This concept has been adopted by more than 50 other countries in one form or another,” former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall said at a recent aviation conference. “No country that has made the change has ever sought to change back.”
But Delta, which pulled out of Airlines for America over disagreements about privatizing air traffic control, argues that countries like Canada and the United Kingdom that undertook similar efforts pass on more fees to customers.
“Delta agrees that improvements to our current air-traffic control system are needed,” Delta Senior Vice President Steve Dickson said in a 2016 report. “Any effort to separate the ATO from the FAA will create a distraction that will set back these efforts for years.”
Curtis Tate contributed to this report.