President Donald Trump has big plans to change U.S. aviation. But they’ll have a hard time getting through the Senate.
Lawmakers from rural states, Democrat and Republican, almost uniformly want to maintain subsidized air service to smaller airports, which Trump’s budget blueprint proposes to eliminate.
He also wants to transfer air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to an outside governing board run by the airlines.
Senators from rural states fear the economic consequences of taking that responsibility away from the FAA and letting big commercial airlines disproportionately influence how the system operates.
They also think the plan to tax takeoffs and landings to pay for the new system would make it more costly to fly smaller, private planes.
Powerful members of Congress who control the purse strings, meanwhile, don’t want to lose oversight of air traffic control.
An inevitable clash looms.
Just last week, after the top White House economic adviser said private planes and business aircraft “probably” would not pay takeoff and landing fees under Trump’s plan, stakeholders from small town mayors to organizations representing private pilots came to the Senate to testify against it.
They have some powerful allies in the chamber who oppose any changes that they see weakening congressional supervision of the U.S. aviation system.
In February, four top members of the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, that separating air traffic control from the FAA would make it less accountable to the public.
“It does not appear to make sense to break apart the FAA, an essential part of our success in aviation,” wrote Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island. “The public would not be well-served by exempting any part of the FAA from essential congressional oversight.”
Other senators oppose Trump’s plan to abolish Essential Air Service, a program that supports commercial flights to 170 rural airports across the country.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 21 senators wrote Collins and Reed that these places depend on the program to support economic development and access to life-saving medical services and disaster response.
“Without this program, these communities would lose air service as airlines would move to only serve more profitable markets,” they wrote. “That would leave some communities hundreds of miles away from the nearest large- or medium-hub airport.”
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week on rural air service, those opposing Trump’s plans for aviation found a sympathetic ear in lawmakers.
“If you care about rural America, you better care about rural America’s airports,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.
“This is quite a slap in the face” to rural communities, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, said about Trump’s proposal to eliminate Essential Air Service.
The opposition to Trump’s aviation plans sets up an inevitable clash between lawmakers and the White House.
Congress must reauthorize the FAA by Sept. 30, and the air traffic control changes will be a sticking point. The House Transportation Committee approved a bill early last year to privatize U.S. airspace, but it never got a vote in the full House. The Senate didn’t take up the matter.
Last week, Gary Cohn, the director of the White House National Economic Council, said other countries had updated their air traffic control systems, “so we know it’s relatively easy to do.”
“It’s kind of insulting that we’re not the first to do air traffic control; we’re the last to do air traffic control,” Cohn told a group of corporate executives at a White House town hall event.
Late last month, a group of U.S. officials toured Nav Canada, the Canadian air traffic control operator, which was separated from the government in 1996.
The delegation included Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee.
Cohn enlisted the help of the executives from a variety of industries gathered at the White House to convince general aviation interests to buy into privatization.
He also called on House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, who attended with the executives, to bring key skeptics in Congress on board.
“They like that $40 billion or $50 billion a year flowing through their hands,” Cohn said of lawmakers. “If we actually privatize air traffic control, they won’t be able to touch the money.”