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Trump Shows Interest in Privatizing Air Traffic Control

Unlike the U.S., most countries separate air traffic control duties from their aviation-safety agencies

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    President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with airline executives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

    President Donald Trump told airline and airport executives Thursday that he is interested in privatizing America's air traffic control system and improving the nation's airports and roads, which he called obsolete.

    Trump also promised to roll back government regulations and said he will announce a plan in the next three weeks to reduce taxes on businesses. But he sounded skeptical about raising fees that airline passengers pay to fund airport improvements.

    One issue was notably absent during the White House meeting — Trump's executive order to temporarily ban travel to the U.S. from seven mostly-Muslim countries. Airline leaders had criticized the order, which a federal appeals court refused to reinstate Thursday after it was suspended by a lower-court ruling.

    Airline and airport executives who emerged from the White House meeting called it a positive session.

    Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told Trump the best way to help airlines would be to "modernize the air traffic control system." He complained that money spent on the system has not improved it.

    "I hear we're spending billions and billions of dollars, it's a system that's totally out of whack," Trump said.

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    Some airline executives and Republicans in Congress have proposed privatizing air traffic control because they say the Federal Aviation Administration has moved too slowly on modernization and would benefit by being removed from the uncertain congressional budget process. Other lawmakers oppose reducing Congress' oversight of aviation, and business and private aircraft owners worry their costs will go up.

    Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America, the trade group that represents most major airlines but not Delta, said Trump was "extraordinarily positive" when airline executives urged him to spin off air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.

    While Trump supported modernizing the air traffic system, he did not explicitly endorse privatization, said another participant, Kevin Burke, president of Airports Council International-North America.

    Unlike the U.S., most countries separate air traffic control duties from their aviation-safety agencies. But it is unusual to actually privatize air traffic operations. Canada is an exception.

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    Republican congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the House transportation committee, introduced legislation to privatize the system last year. The bill stalled, however, after running into opposition from other top lawmakers and business-jet owners, who fear that the private corporation's board would be dominated by airlines, and that they would lose access to larger airports and pay a larger share of the system's costs.

    The privatization effort has the backing of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, although other FAA unions are opposed.

    The FAA said it has spent $7.5 billion on modernizing air traffic control in the last seven years, resulting in $2.7 billion in benefits to passengers and airlines. It predicts it will produce much larger benefits over the next 13 years.

    Trump, who once ran his own airline, pledged to help the airlines deliver "the greatest service" with minimum delays and at the lowest cost. He compared infrastructure in the United States unfavorably with other countries.

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    "Our airports used to be the best, now they're at the bottom of the rung," he said. "We have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports, we have obsolete trains, we have bad roads. We're going to change all of that."

    Airport officials told Trump they'd like to increase the fee airline passengers pay airports as part of their tickets so that the money could help with modernization. Airlines oppose an increase, and Trump said he doesn't like raising fees, participants said.

    Airlines were partly deregulated in 1978 but must still work closely with government. They complain about recent regulations including fees that raise ticket prices, and rules on how they can advertise fares and what information they must disclose to the public.

    American, Delta and United and their unions are appealing to Washington for help in blocking competition from Middle Eastern carriers that they say are unfairly subsidized by their governments, letting them offer artificially low fares. That issue came up only briefly on Thursday, with Trump saying he wants "to make life good" for foreign airlines too.

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    "They come with big investments," Trump said. "In many cases those investments are made by their governments, but they are still big investments."

    Earlier this week White House press secretary Sean Spicer praised the economic impact of Norwegian Air, which is basing pilots in the U.S. and ordering U.S.-made planes from Boeing. The U.S. airlines and their unions say Norwegian and the Middle Eastern carriers threaten American jobs.

    Trump's travel ban never came up, Spicer said. Protests against last month's order clogged airports, and airlines struggled to comply with the requirement to ban some of their passengers from traveling.

    American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in a letter to employees that the Trump order "does not affect the values that this company is built upon — those of diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance." Parker missed the meeting with Trump — he stayed home in Dallas for a previously scheduled meeting with 1,600 employees. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who was at the session with Trump, has also criticized the order.

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    Robert Mann, an airline consultant and former American executive, said airline leaders were wise not to bring up the subject on Thursday.

    "They are in a business which requires a lot of 'go along to get along' with government agencies," Mann said. "They want to try to make nice."